Leadership in Organizations: Concepts and Theories

April 20, 2012

Larry Coutts, Ph.D. and Director, Research and Development at EPSI Inc. shares with you the highlights of his findings on some of the numerous concepts and theories pertaining to leadership.



Theoretical Approaches to Leadership

Interest in leadership increased during the early part of the twentieth century. Early leadership theories focused on what qualities distinguished between leaders and followers, while subsequent theories looked at other variables such as situational factors and skill levels. Several theoretical approaches have been developed to explain leadership. However, although many different leadership theories have emerged, most can be classified into one of the following major types. It is important to recognize, however, that these leadership theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • Trait theories
  • Behavioural theories
  • Situational contingency theories
  • Participative theories
  • Transactional theories
  • Transformational theories

Trait theoriesTrait theories assume that people inherit certain qualities and traits that make them better suited to leadership. Trait theories often identify particular personality or behavioural characteristics shared by leaders. It is the earliest approach used to study leadership, having been first used more than a century ago. Initially, the focus was on which traits differentiated “great persons” from the masses. Later studies that used this approach examined differences between leaders and non-leaders as well as trait predictions of outcomes. However, the findings were inconsistent.

More recent research has produced more promising results. Several traits that help identify important leadership strengths have been identified and most of these traits also tend to predict leadership outcomes (Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991; House and Aditya, 1997; Yukl, 1998). A sample of these identified traits with positive implications for successful leadership is presented below.

  • Energy and adjustment or stress tolerance
  • Integrity
  • Prosocial power motivation
  • Perseverance or tenacity
  • Achievement orientation
  • Cognitive ability, social intelligence
  • Emotional maturity
  • Flexibility
  • Self-confidence

Behavioural theories: Behavioural theories of leadership focus on the actions of leaders not on mental qualities or internal states. According to this theoretical approach, people can learn to become leaders through teaching and observation. Behavioural theories emphasize what leaders actually do on the job and the relationship of this behaviour to leader effectiveness. Two major lines of behaviour research are (1) the classification of leadership behaviours into taxonomies and (2) the identification of behaviours related to criteria of leadership effectiveness.

In the 1940s and 1950s, researchers at both the University of Michigan and the Ohio State University sought to identify the leadership behaviours that result in effective performance. Although there were slight differences in the findings of both research groups, the results revealed that subordinates perceive the behaviour of their leader primarily in terms of two independent categories, one dealing with people-oriented behaviours (consideration) and the other with task-oriented behaviours (initiating structure). A highly considerate leader is sensitive to people’s feelings and tries to make things pleasant for his or her followers. On the other hand, a leader who is high in initiating structure is more concerned about defining task requirements and other aspects of the work agenda. Subsequent research indicated that effective leaders should be high in both consideration and initiating structure behaviours (e.g., Schriesheim, Cogliser, & Neider, 1995).

More recently, Yukl, Wall, and Lepsinger (1990) presented a detailed taxonomy of effective leadership behaviours which included the following 11 categories of behaviour applicable to any leader.

A considerable amount of research has examined how specific types of leadership behaviour are related to leader effectiveness. This research suggests that leader effectiveness is predicted better by specific behaviours (e.g., clarifying, monitoring, and problem solving) relevant to the leadership situation than broad measures such as consideration and initiating structure.

Situational Contingency Theories: The trait and behavioural perspectives assume that leadership, by itself, has a strong impact on outcomes. Another development in leadership thinking recognizes, however, that outcomes may be more accurately predicted when leader traits and behaviours are considered in relation to situational contingencies—other important aspects of the leadership situation. Toward this end, contingency theories of leadership such as those proposed by Fred Fiedler (1967), Robert House (1971; 1996), and Hersey and Blanchard (1988; 2001) focus on specific variables related to the environment that might determine which particular style of leadership is best suited for the situation. According to these approaches, no leadership style is best in all situations. Success depends upon a number of variables, including the leader’s preferred style, the capabilities and behaviours of the followers, and aspects of the situation.

For example, according to House’s (1971) Path-Goal Theory, the most important activities of leaders are those that clarify the paths to various goals of interest to subordinates. Such goals might include a promotion, a sense of accomplishment, or a pleasant work climate. In turn, the opportunity to achieve such goals should promote job satisfaction, acceptance of the leader, and high work effort. In this way, the effective leader forms a connection between subordinates’ goals and the organization’s goals. The theory assumes that a leader’s key function is to adjust his/her behaviours by providing what is missing in the situational contingencies, such as those in the work setting. Aspects of the situation such as the nature of the task, the work environment, and subordinate attributes (e.g., ability) determine the optimal amount of each type of leader behaviour (directive, supportive, achievement-oriented, participative) for improving subordinate satisfaction and performance. A model of Path-Goal Theory is depicted in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Model of Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

House revised his theory in later years (House, 1996) and presented a reformulated path-goal theory of work unit leadership. The reformulated theory specifies leader behaviours that enhance subordinate empowerment and satisfaction and work unit and subordinate effectiveness. It addresses the effects of leaders on the motivation and abilities of immediate subordinates and the effects of leaders on work unit performance.


Stay tuned for more on the topic… In the meantime, if you have any questions that you’d like answered, there’s no time like the present!

Larry Coutts, Ph.D.



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Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1998). Charismatic leadership in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hersey, P, and Blanchard, K. H. (1988). Management of organizational behaviour. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hersey, P, Blanchard, K. H., & Johnson, D. E. (2001). Management of organizational behaviour, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

House, R. J. (1971). A path-goal theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16, 321-338.

House, R. J. (1996). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly, 7, 323-352.

House, R. J., & Aditya, R. (1997). The social scientific study of leadership: Quo vadis. Journal of Management, 23, 409-474.

Kanungo, R. N. (1998). Leadership in organizations: Looking ahead to the 21st century. Canadian Psychology, 39(1-2).

Kirkpatrick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: Do traits matter? The Executive, 5(2), 48-60.

Lowe, K. B., Kroeck, K. G., & Sivasubramaniam, N. (1996). Effectiveness correlates of transformation and transactional leadership: A meta-analytic review of the MLQ literature. Leadership Quarterly, 7, 385-425.

Quinn, R. E. (1988). Beyond Rational Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Schriesheim, C. A., Cogliser, C. C., & Neider, L. L. (1995). Is it trustworthy? A multiple-levels-of analysis re-examination of an Ohio State leadership study with implications for future research. Leadership Quarterly, Summer, 111-145.

Yukl, G. (1998). Leadership in organizations (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Yukl, G. A., Wall, S, & Lepsinger, R. (1990). Preliminary report on validation of the management practices survey. In K. E. Clark & M. B. Clark (Eds.), Measures of leadership (pp. 223-238). West Orange, NJ: Leadership Library of America.


About the Author


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