Leadership theories: History and description of their model

Leadership theory history


Leadership is a key concept in understanding the dynamics of an organization and a determining factor in its success. Since the first observations of this phenomenon, scientists have continually sought to define its boundaries and establish explanatory models. This article aims to explore the history of leadership studies, examine existing leadership models, and discuss their application in business.

Historical overview of Leadership theories

The study of leadership as a distinct field emerged in the early 20th century. The initial approach focused on identifying personality traits characteristic of leaders, called "trait theory of leadership". In the 1940s and 1950s, this perspective was criticized for its lack of consideration for context and relationships between leaders and group members.

In the 1960s, attention shifted to the behavior of leaders, not just their personality traits. This gave rise to the "behavioral leadership theory", which focuses on leaders' actions rather than their inherent traits.

More recently, leadership has been examined from a contingency perspective, meaning the idea that leadership effectiveness depends on the situation. From this perspective, several models have emerged, including Hersey-Blanchard's Situational Leadership model and Fiedler's leadership model.

Main Leadership theories throughout history

1. Trait Leadership theory

Originating in the early 20th century, this theory suggests that certain individuals possess natural traits that predispose them to become leaders. Commonly cited leadership traits include extraversion, emotional intelligence, determination, autonomy, and self-confidence. However, this theory has been criticized for its lack of reproducibility and for not addressing the impact of environment and situation on leadership.

2. Behavioral Leadership theories

Behavioral Leadership theories began to emerge in the 1930s in response to trait theory of leadership. Researchers from this period began to realize that personal traits couldn't fully explain leadership effectiveness. They started focusing on the behaviors that leaders adopted in various situations.
Behavioral Leadership theories suggest that leadership isn't just a matter of innate traits but can be taught and acquired. The Behavioral Leadership model includes two behavior styles typically observed: task-oriented style, where the leader focuses on work organization and goal achievement, and people-oriented style, where the leader focuses on encouragement and the well-being of their team.
Lewin was an influential precursor of Behavioral Leadership theories. He identified three leadership styles by Lewin - autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire, centered around leader behavior.

3. Situational Leadership theory

The Situational Leadership theory was developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the 1960s in response to previous theories which assumed there was one "best" way to lead. The Situational Leadership theory suggests that the most effective leadership style depends on the situation and the maturity level (capability and willingness to take responsibility) of subordinates.

Hersey and Blanchard proposed a leadership model that identifies four leadership styles - delegating, supporting, coaching, and directing - and suggests that leaders should adapt their style based on the maturity of their subordinates and the requirements of the situation.

4. Contingency Leadership theory 

The Contingency Leadership theory, also known as Fiedler's contingency model, was developed by psychologist Fred Fiedler in the 1960s. This theory is based on the idea that a leader's success depends on the situation and the fit between the leader's leadership style and the specific requirements of the situation. Like the Situational Leadership theory, it was developed in response to previous theories, notably the Behavioral Leadership theory which held that there was an "ideal" or "effective" leadership style.

Fiedler's Leadership model proposes that task-oriented leaders are more effective in extremely favorable or unfavorable situations, where leader-subordinate relations are clearly defined. In contrast, relationship-oriented leaders are more effective in intermediate situations, where task structure and leader power are neither clearly defined nor completely absent.

5. Managerial Grid theory

The Managerial Grid theory, or leadership grid, was developed by Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton in the 1960s. The central concept of the theory is that an individual's leadership style can be identified and assessed based on their concerns for production (i.e., task, objective, outcomes) and their concerns for people (i.e., relationships, employee well-being). It thereby revisits the same dimensions as Behavioral Leadership.

Blake and Mouton presented this theory as a way for leaders to understand their current behavior and explore how they might adjust their approach to be more effective. They suggested that the most effective leadership is one that balances concerns for people and production, represented by the "Team Management" (9,9) on the grid. The Managerial Grid revisits the styles originally developed by Kurt Lewin, and adds others.

The Managerial Grid was developed in part in response to the prevailing opinion at the time that leadership was a matter of choice between task emphasis or relationship emphasis.

Blake and Mouton argued that it was not a matter of choosing one over the other, but rather finding a balance between the two. They contended that leaders who succeed in balancing these two concerns are most likely to achieve good results.

6. Transformational Leadership theory

The Transformational Leadership theory was developed by James V. Downton and popularized by Bernard M. Bass in the 1980s.

According to the Transformational Leadership theory, effective leaders inspire their subordinates to transcend their personal interests for the benefit of the organization. Bass proposed a four-factor Transformational Leadership model: idealized influence (they act as role models), inspirational motivation (they inspire and motivate), intellectual stimulation (they encourage creativity and innovation), and individual consideration (they support individual development).

The Transformational Leadership theory was developed in response to critiques of the Transactional Leadership theory which suggested that the latter did not account for the human aspect of leadership and did not encourage change and innovation in the organization. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, are supposed to encourage their subordinates to exceed their expectations and to innovate.

7. Transactional Leadership theory

The Transactional Leadership theory was developed from the works of Max Weber in the early 20th century, but it was popularized by Bernard Bass's work in the 1980s. The Transactional Leadership theory emerged in reaction to prevailing leadership theories of the time, notably the Trait Leadership theory, which had been criticized for its lack of context and interaction between the leader and his subordinates consideration.

The Transactional Leadership theory was introduced to address these criticisms by emphasizing the importance of interactions between the leader and the subordinates. In Transactional Leadership, leaders set clear goals and provide rewards (or punishments) based on the performance of the subordinates.

8. Servant Leadership theory

The Servant Leadership theory was initially proposed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. In his essay "The Servant as Leader", Greenleaf suggested that true leadership naturally emerges from those who are first and foremost servants.

Unlike traditional leadership theories that place the leader at the top, the Servant Leadership model puts the leader in service to others. According to Greenleaf, Servant Leadership is based on the leader's desire to help others achieve their full potential and to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

The Servant Leadership theory was developed in response to a feeling of discontent with traditional, authoritarian power structures. Greenleaf argued that these power structures tended to dehumanize workers, viewing them as means to achieve the organization's objectives. In contrast, Servant Leadership seeks to reverse this hierarchy by placing the needs of the workers ahead of those of the organization.

The Servant Leadership theory gained popularity in the early 21st century, partly due to its alignment with new leadership expectations that prioritize empathy, listening, and supporting personal development. Many studies have shown that Servant Leadership can lead to greater job satisfaction, better team performance, and increased organizational commitment.

9. Authentic Leadership theory

The Authentic Leadership theory was introduced in the late 2000s in response to a growing demand for more transparent, genuine, and accountable leaders. This demand was largely driven by a series of corporate scandals and a crisis of trust in leadership at the time.

Authentic leaders are described as being aware of their values, emotions, and motivations, and as having a high degree of congruence between their values and actions. They are also known for their openness and transparency in their relationships with their subordinates. According to researchers, authentic leaders foster a work environment in which employees feel respected, listened to, and valued.

Bill George, one of the main proponents of Authentic Leadership, suggested that this form of leadership is based on the development and enactment of a personal "life story" that guides the leader's actions and decisions. According to George, Authentic Leadership cannot be taught in a course or workshop; it instead emerges from the leader's life experience and self-understanding.

Most used leadership theories in the 21st century

In the 21st century, the leadership theories most widely used in practice are the Transformational Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Authentic Leadership theories. They have become popular primarily because all three have demonstrated their ability to better engage employees and increase job satisfaction.

1. Transformational Leadership
Studies have shown that Transformational Leadership can lead to higher levels of employee engagement, performance, and job satisfaction. For instance, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that Transformational Leadership was positively linked to employees' organizational identification and job satisfaction.

2. Servant Leadership

Many studies have shown that Servant Leadership can promote greater team cohesion, better team performance, and higher levels of satisfaction among team members. For example, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Management Studies found that Servant Leadership was positively associated with team performance.

3. Authentic Leadership

Authentic Leadership has also become increasingly popular in the 21st century. Studies have shown it can lead to greater trust, increased job satisfaction, and higher organizational commitment. For instance, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies found that Authentic Leadership was positively linked to job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Since its introduction, the theory of Authentic Leadership has garnered significant interest and has been widely adopted in various fields, including in business and politics.

4. Not the most used but influential: Situational Leadership
The theory of Situational Leadership continues to be widely used and taught in the 20th century. The Situational Leadership theory is valued for its flexibility and pragmatism. It recognizes that leaders need to adjust their style based on the specific situation and the development level of those they lead. This perspective has become increasingly relevant as the business world became more complex and dynamic.
However, main critiques suggest that the theory is overly simplistic and does not account for the complexity of human interactions or provide enough specific guidance on how to adjust one's leadership style to different situations.
So, even if it's less popular than the previous three, the Situational Leadership theory remains a significant influence in the field of leadership.

Conclusion and future trends

The history of leadership is rich and varied, evolving with the sociocultural, economic, and technological shifts of each era. From early authoritarian and trait-focused conceptions to contemporary approaches that value authenticity, adaptability, and inclusion, leadership has always reflected the needs and aspirations of the societies in which it emerged.

Over time, the very definition of leadership has undergone a major transformation. While early theories emphasized innate characteristics and individual qualities, modern theories place more emphasis on relationships, context, and a leader's ability to inspire and co-create a vision with their teams.

Recent trends suggest a shift toward more collaborative, empathetic, and sustainability-focused forms of leadership. With the rise of technology, the world has become increasingly interconnected, requiring leaders to have the ability to work within and understand diverse cultural, economic, and social contexts.

The challenges of the 21st century - from climate crises to technological disruptions, to sociopolitical issues - call for leadership that values diversity, innovation, and resilience. Future leaders will also need to have high emotional intelligence, be able to manage increasing complexities, and have a global perspective.

Furthermore, with the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, human skills such as creativity, compassion, and critical thinking will become even more valuable. Leaders will therefore need to navigate a world where humans and machines coexist and collaborate closely.

Lastly, the future of leadership will likely be marked by a merging of past leadership styles with the changing demands of the present. Effective leaders will be those who can draw from history for insights while remaining agile and responsive to current needs.

In sum, leadership, across ages, is a reflection of the challenges and aspirations of its time. While tools, theories, and approaches may change, the essence of leadership - influencing, inspiring, and facilitating positive change - remains constant.
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Tuesday, 28 May 2024