Leadership theories: An evolution tree approach

One of the most complex phenomena to which organizational and psychological research has been applied is leadership. Whereas the term “leadership” became prominent in the late 1700s, the term “leader” was well-known and conceptualized as early as the 1300s before the biblical times (Stogdill, 1974). Nonetheless, not until the twentieth century has scientific research on the topic taken centerstage (Bass, 1981). Up until now, a proliferation of studies on leadership has revealed several leadership theories and models that have evolved over the years to define and put the leadership styles into perspective. This subsection, therefore, chronicles the development of leadership theories (presented graphically in Figure 8.1) over ten leadership eras and periods. The model recognizes the order in which leadership theories developed. Each new era presents a higher stage of development of the previous era.

Personality era

The personality era marks the beginning of the leadership development process and presents two periods, namely the great man period (Great Man Theory) and the trait period (Trait Theory). The great man period suggested that imitating the personality and behaviors of great men (and sometimes women) in the history of the world would make one a strong leader (Gallon, 1869). In earlier studies, leadership was equated to personality (Bowden, 1927) and sometimes inheritance (Jennings, 1960). The great man theory therefore portrayed leaders as heroic and mythic. This belief became unpopular since it was clear there was difficulty in

Integrative Era




Self-fulfilling prophecy period

Charisma period

Great Man Period

Figure 8.1 Evolution tree of leadership theory.

Source: Van Seters & Field, 1990

imitating varied personalities. The trait period came with little advancement in the development of leadership theories (King, 1990). Some key traits were developed such as the desire to lead, drive, integrity, self-confidence, intelligence and relevant job knowledge which, if adopted, would enhance the leadership potential of persons (Maslanka, 2004). The focus is on what makes a leader. Similar to the great man theory, the trait theory failed when studies revealed there were no single or sets of traits that were consistent with effective leadership (Maslanka, 2004; Van Seters & Field, 1990). The search for a new explanation regarding effective leadership was therefore necessary when there were inconsistencies between leadership traits and leadership effectiveness (Amanchukwu et al., 2015). Then the influence era followed.

Influence era

The influence era also saw two periods, namely the power relations and the persuasion periods. This era recognized that the relationship between individuals defines leadership. Therefore, it sought to emphasize the power and influence of persons in a relationship. The power relation period implied that the degree of leadership effectiveness lies in the source, power and utilization of such power. Evidence of the influence of power is seen in authoritative leadership. However, French (1956) argues how ineffective they are in current leadership approaches. The second period of the influence era was the persuasion period which frowns on intimidation, force, authoritarian and bullying leaders. This era, however, recognized that in a leader-member relationship, the leader rules; thus, the leader’s dominance approach.

Behavior era

An entirely new focus on leadership described effective leaders by what they do. Studies in this era emphasized the behavior pattern of leaders as well as the differences between an effective and an ineffective leader (Yuki, 1971). This era has been described as a major advancement in the leadership theory for two reasons: it enjoyed the strong empirical support and its ease of implementation (Fleishman &. Harris, 1962). Three periods were included in the behavior era; the early behavior period, late behavior period and the operant period. The early behavior period focused on advancing the personality trait by developing behavioral traits. Leaders’ interest in accomplishing the task and their concern for individual group cohesion were the two core leadership behavior traits identified with the early behavior period by the Ohio State and Michigan (Griffin, Skivington &. Moorhead, 1987). These behavioral features are seen exhibited by charismatic leaders. What the late behavioral period did was to adapt to the early behavioral period theories for management application. The theories X and Y received much attention.

McGregor (1966) explained that whereas theory X suggests that subordinates’ employees were passive, disliked work, performed only under guidance and supervision, were not responsible and required intimidation to perform and also enjoyed financial motivation, theory Y described subordinates as inherently motivated, responsible for working, enjoyed work which they regarded as naturally part of life, required little or no guidance to work and performed effectively and efficiently in a conducive work environment. The operant period discussed the behavior of leaders as a reflection of subordinates. Thus, subordinates behaved like their leaders. Kerr and Schriesheim (1974) advanced that though the behavior era was well researched, there existed mixed empirical evidence to support it. This era entrenched the behavior theory which attributes great leadership as being born and not made (Amanchukwu et al., 2015), suggesting people can learn to become great leaders through training.

114 Communication and leadership

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