More than two thousand years ago, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, attempted to define leadership. Fast forward to the 20th century, and theorists were still searching for a definition. In fact, during the past century, three major schools of thought have developed.

Trait Era: Turn of the 20th Century to the Mid-1940s

Leaders are born.

Certain people are born with personality traits that make them great leaders — or so claimed American psychologist, William James, in writing about the “great men” of history — men such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar (1880). Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, made much the same point in Heroes and Hero Worship (1907). The reigning belief during this era was that heredity justifies the status quo. Those men who hold political, social, and industrial power do so because they are born with the personality traits of leaders. “These special characteristics were presumed to push them toward leadership regardless of the context” (Nahavandi, 1999).

However, by the mid 20th century, this view was overturned. Researchers had conducted numerous studies in which they gathered data on personality traits, trying to identify those traits that were consistently associated with effective leadership. Their findings turned out to be weak or inconsistent. As a result, some researchers began to look for other ways to account for effective leadership.

Behavioral Era: Late 1930s through the 1950s

People can learn to become leaders.

Rather than trying to identify the personality traits associated with effective leadership, researchers sought to identify effective leadership behaviors. Instead of asking, “What are leaders like?” they began to ask, “What do leaders do?” (Hemphill & Coons, 1957). A behavioral approach provided obvious advantages when it came to training leaders during World War II. Whereas personality traits are either inborn or formed very early in life, specific behaviors can be learned through training. Today the behavioral approach continues to provide advantages for training people to become effective leaders within organizations.

Some of the most famous findings on leadership behavior came out of the Ohio State Studies (Hemphill & Coons, 1957). These studies established task- and relationship-based behaviors as keys to effective leadership. According to these studies, the goal of task-related behaviors is the timely completion of tasks. The goal of relationship-based behaviors is to maintain group cohesiveness. These behaviors include asking for everyone’s input and providing praise for individual contributions — when praise is genuinely due.

Behavioral research led to the successful identification of different categories of leadership behavior, but it had not yet provided a complete picture of effective leadership.

Situational Era: Early 1960s to the Present Day

It all depends on context.

As early as the 1930s, researchers had been calling for a more comprehensive approach to leadership — an approach that would take the situation as well as the behavior into account. Fred Fiedler was one of the first researchers to investigate a situational approach in depth (1967). Fiedler demonstrated that, to be most effective, leaders need to adapt their characteristic behaviors to different situations. When a leader matches his or her behavioral style to a situation, then he or she will be most effective. When a leader does not create a match between style and situation, then he or she will not be effective in that situation. In other words, effective leadership depends upon, or is contingent upon, the situation. Today, the contingency view continues to dominate leadership theory.

In the next several posts, we will explore the interplay between leadership theory and style to discover how it may impact individual and organizational performance.

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