Last updated: February 13, 2019
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Leadership has been defined as the exercise of one person’s influence over a subordinate (Antonakis, 2004), yet such a definition gives only a very surface-level understanding of the leadership as a concept. Several theories exist today that are concerned with the different types of leadership that exist. The reason for this development of such a wide variety of theories is largely that, not only do several ways exists in which a person might exert influence over another, but these methods may differ in response to the personality as well as culture/environment of the leader (Hofstede, 1983; McGregor, 1960). Among the most widely quoted theories are trait, behavioral, contingency and path-goal theories. Within these theories, which will be subsequently discussed, are contained such models of leadership as the leader-participation model, the Fielder model, path-goal, and several others.

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Overview of Theories

Trait Theory

Trait theory is based on the idea that people’s personalities contain certain dominant traits that present themselves regardless of the situation that is being faced. This theory posits that the personality of any individual can be separated into five categories: extraversion, psychoticism, and neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. These traits can be identified by the analysis of habits, which are in turn determined through the summation of behaviors in a number of situations.  Extraversion has to do with how sociable a leader behaves, while psychoticism is defined by the leader’s likelihood to be disagreeable and unconscionable. Neuroticism refers to the emotional instability of a particular leader, while openness and conscientiousness refer to the leader’s ability to be welcoming and considerate of employees as well as the overall job situation (Bond, 1994).


Behavioral Theories – Theory X

The book The human side of enterprise by Douglas McGregor (1960) describes the behavioral theories of leadership which he gives the names Theories X and Y. These theories are concerned with the how leaders view the employees in their businesses, and each theory represents almost opposing views. On the one hand, Theory X denotes the view of leaders that emphasizes their control over their subordinates. This theory is an extreme one that views persons as being intrinsically predisposed to hating work and the theory dictates that leaders should come up with methods of forcing them to work by giving out punishments and rewards for bad and good samples of work habits and work ethic. On the other hand, Theory-Y describes leaders and managers whose activities demonstrate their belief that “individual and organization goals can be integrated” (Allen, 1998). According to Theory Y, therefore, leaders create personal environments where employees are encouraged to have freedom in expressing their creativity.

According to McGregor in his theories X and Y, managers treat their subordinates according to their conception of the nature of human beings. Those who act based on the Theory-X approach first assume that the onus is upon those who lead to organize the subordinates, materials, and equipment into an efficient machine that meets the goals for which the organization or project was created (Barnett & Droege, 2005). As this regards human capital, the process involves motivation and control, and hinges on the manipulation of the employee.



Theory Y

Like theory X, Theory Y holds managers responsible for organizing production elements toward the goal of economic profit-making. However, it ascribes to employees a higher degree of intrinsic motivation than theory X does. It actually places workers in a much more auspicious light, as it raises them from the position of puppets to the level of partners. Theory Y sees subordinates as having an interest of their own in the success of the group. Since individual naturally desire to work toward their goals, Theory Y regards them as wanting only an initial motivational push in order to reveal this.

Some related principles of Theory Y are that employees direct their efforts toward their work as easily as they might toward socializing. There is no need to threaten them in order to meet the goals of the group simply because their individual goals are one with those of the group. Unlike the subordinates of Theory X, these persons go looking for areas in which they have the ability to take on responsibility. Likewise, followers according to this theory possess creativity and imagination, and are always on the verge of displaying one form of ingenuity or another. The behavioral theory that supports this is that humans look for and can find self-actualization through their work. Employees can be self-motivated to do their jobs and accept changes to it given the right atmosphere and the proper encouragement from their managers (Barnett & Droege, 2005;).


Ohio State, Michigan and University of Iowa Models

The leadership qualities that have been identified by the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan have to do with the considerate and initiating styles of leadership. The first denotes the leader who is concerned with the employees’ welfare while the second is primarily concerned with achieving the goals of the particular organization. The behavioral theories described by the University of Iowa show the democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire styles of leadership. The democratic style focuses on the needs and desires of the employees and allows them to have a say in the direction that projects take. The autocratic demonstrates a more centralized authority in which the manager or leader deals out decisions which employees are expected to follow. The laissez-faire style leaves employees to themselves and allows them to do what they would like without any directional or disciplinary intervention by the leader (Boje, 2000).


Fielder’s Contingency Model

Contingency models of leadership have been postulated by theorists, in which the leader must scrutinize the situation at hand and adapt his or her leadership skills to the matters and employee behaviors that are involved (Allen, 1998). Waldman et al. (2001) has mentioned that contingency models operate in the way they do because “uncertainty is stressful to followers, makes organizations more receptive to charismatic effects, and allows leaders more latitude for discretion.” The Fielder Contingency Model does adhere to such general contingency ideas, and it considers three aspects of managerial leadership in denoting the behavior of managers in a given situation: the relationship between/among the leader and employee(s), the structure of the task, and the authority of the manager.

The relationship between the leader and the subordinate, according to Fielder’s model, is given on a scale ranging from good to poor. The scale contains eight points, with the first (1) representing the highest level of good and the last (8) representing the lowest level of bad. The personality of the leader (as well as followers) factor into the ability to create good relationships, as the ability to communicate and understand each other defines the wholesomeness of the relationship. The structure or unstructured nature of the work represents the amount of organization managed by the leader as well as the amount of creative freedom accorded to the employees. The authority aspect of the model addresses the extent to which the position being filled by the particular leader enables him/her to exert authority and have the subordinates comply (Dessler, 2004).


House’s Path-Goal Model

The Robert House’s Path-Goal theory describes the leader who supports the staff in setting goals and then assisting them in selecting the best path to take in order to attain the desired goal. It also involves some amount of contingency, in that such leaders are able to adapt their styles to fit the needs of their followers in different situations. Therefore, this theory would render the leader or manager more employee-focused. After illuminating the path and working to minimize the obstacles, leaders also increase the number of rewards that lie along the path. The extent to which a leader involves him-/herself in any one of these steps is variable under the path-goal theory model. When leaders differ, four distinct styles of path-goal leadership develop (Schul, 1987).

Supportive leadership finds the leader focusing on the needs of the subordinate, while directive leadership takes a more authoritative approach to the path-goal model. Directive leadership seeks to minimize the ambiguity of expectations by giving direct and clear orders. Participative leadership denotes both leaders and followers as members of a team that works together to get through the designated path to the goal. Achievement-oriented leadership focuses on the formulation of goals that are challenging enough both to stretch the abilities of the individuals involved and to improve the standards of the project (Schul, 1987).

Discussion of Theories

Theory X vs. Theory Y

While Theory X views employees as inherently lazy and resistant to change as it regards the work environment, Theory Y considers these same employees as having the ability to self-motivate and as being welcoming of changes that will enhance or otherwise improve the job they do. Therefore, while leaders are likely to want to force employees to work with the use rewards or punishment in an environment governed under Theory-X, the leaders in a Theory-Y environment act in the opposite manner. A Theory-Y leader would encourage employees and put time and effort into developing them. Such a leader would also invest time into creating an atmosphere that caters to their subordinates’.


Trait, Behavioral, Fielder’s and Path-Goal Theories

The endowment of the managers with the ability to reward and punish employees, as expressed in Fielder’s Contingency Model, is comparable to the behavioral theories in that Theories X and Y also depend on the authority of the manager. Those managers who follow the Theory X model and opt to threaten employees are effective only because of the authority of their position. Equally, those managers who accord freedoms to employees according to the Theory Y model are also dependent on their position’s authority to put this into effect (Allen, 1998; Barnett & Droege, 2005; Waldman, 2001).

Managers working according to Theory X act under the assumption that humans are inherently lazy and have to be forced to work. They assume that work in itself offers a level of distastefulness to employees that they are unable to surmount unless otherwise motivated. Such beliefs of the manager according to Fielder’s model would dictate the way in which he/she chooses to manage the employees. It would determine whether the employees are given creative freedom, or whether the manager seeks to control all aspects of the department’s output. The Iowa model representing the autocratic leadership style is also comparable to these models, as the authority of the leader must also be respected and employees disobey the orders of leaders at their peril (Barnett & Droege, 2005; Boje, 2000).

These behaviors would also determine the extent to which trust is garnered in such a department, and these would also appear to be dependent on the personality of the manager (Bond, 1994). The manager who is neurotic and/or psychotic would appear similar both to a Theory-X type manager as well as the Iowa model’s autocratic leader. This is so as he/she would have very little faith in the ability of the employee to act autonomously and in the favor of the company. On the other hand, the open and conscientious manager would resemble both the Theory Y manager and the considerate manager of the Ohio State and University of Michigan models. Such a manager’s concern would be the employees first, and he/she would most likely accord creative freedom to employees. This also unites Trait theory and the Behavioral theories with the ideas presented in Fielder’s Contingency Model (Allen, 1998; Barnett & Droege, 2005).

Leaders that accord to the Theory X model assume that individuals tend to shun responsibility and require leadership at every step. This holds some similarity with the Path-Goal leadership model, as it requires the assistance of the leader not only in setting the goals of the project but also in designating the correct path to get there. This seems to accord very little freedom and creativity to the subordinate employee. This Path-Goal theory does require the adaptability of the manager in learning and understanding the leadership needs of his/her subordinates. It therefore takes in some of Fielder’s contingency theory in that the manager’s ability to get along with employees (relationship) would depend on how well he/she can perform the task of understanding and adapting to their needs (Allen, 1998; Schul, 1987).


Contemporary Leadership Issues and Challenges

A major contemporary challenge in the area of leadership is one that deals with the idea of balancing the empowerment of subordinates with the need for the manager to take ownership and responsibility for the outcomes of the organization (Vaill, 1997). In schools, teachers deal with the idea of whether students should be formally lectured from the front of the class or given the chance to discover lessons through hands-on training and trial/error procedures. Principals and other managers face similar problems regarding allowing teachers (or any other worker) to apply their own methods of instruction (or performance in another job) rather than dictating precisely how the worker should do a particular task. Leaders who work in accordance with Theory Y would like create an environment in which those who are subordinate to them feel themselves to be an integral part of the team. Within a business setting, the employee’s input is sought and employee creativity is rewarded.

In a school setting, teachers who work according to this model would involve the students in decision-making and other aspects of the learning experience. Lessons would deviate from the traditional lecture methods (rigid, Theory X and autocratic behavioral model) and expand to include more exploratory features, such as laboratories that make practical even non-practical subjects. Likewise, managers who act according such theories would offer mentorship to their employees and be interested in their growth as workers. They are also interested in their employees’ suggestions, and are likely to demonstrate their trust by delegating to them responsibility as well as authority.

Certain businesses today run in a very unstructured manner, and this supports the idea behind the contingency model. This idea states that the less inherent structure present in the company the more flexibility will also be present to allow its leader to fashion his or her leadership style according to the situations that arise (Allen, 1998). In fact, the relatively unstructured models of leadership are considered by some to contain very powerful leadership strategies. Certain types of businesses, for instance, are very volatile and a leader who manages according to the Fielder Contingency Model would be ready to delegate authority in certain situations. Contemporary businesses of today that are run in this fashion include certain internet-based businesses that employ freelance persons. These persons, though they are employed by the company, are also considered self-employed. Though they must follow certain guidelines in working for the company, they are also granted not just creative freedom, but the freedom to choose projects that they work on. Therefore, the leader and the employee share the responsibility of managing the actions of the freelancer, and the leader-subordinate relationship becomes more flexible.

Most businesses, however, are very structured, and this can be seen in their approaches to corporate governance. These companies have a very detailed structure, beginning at the top with the Board of Directors and going down the line through managers and to the line employees. Managers who prefer to structure tasks may delegate the authority in such a way that lower employees are given smaller aspects of the job to complete and then at scheduled meetings discussions regarding the progress of the tasks. Such managers fit well into the structured atmosphere of many corporations. Furthermore, such corporations’ structure empowers these leaders with the authority necessary to get employees’ co-operation, as it is usually they who are endowed with the power to hire and fire (reward and punish).

Despite all the different types of organizations, what does potentially exist in all of them is a diversity regarding culture, sex, ethnicity ad lifestyle. The ability to diversify in one’s leadership approach is vital in today’s contemporary society, which is defined by multiculturalism (Alves, Manz, & Butterfield, 2005; Hofstede, 1983). Furthermore, the ability to understand and flexibly use some or all of the models of leadership identified here is essential to effective leadership in such a diverse society. The leader must, therefore, be willing to learn, understand, respect, and adapt to the methods of leadership preferred by a given culture, as that culture may easily become represented in his or her group.



The world is changing. It is now quickly evolving into a grand society, and the result is that in any given area that leadership occurs, there also exists a wide variety of personalities and cultures (Alves, Manz, & Butterfield, 2005). Hofstede has demonstrates how cultures within organizations differ in their methods of viewing and interpreting the input from their environments. Therefore, the leadership of individuals within these different group and organizational cultures can and should differ. Especially in today’s globalized and multicultural society, leaders must make themselves aware of the varying types and dimensions of followers that exist. The several leadership theories and models offer insight into how successful leaders have coped in different situations. Contemporary leadership can profit from these different leadership styles as the diversity that now occurs within workplaces, classrooms, and other groups require that different approaches be applied at different times. Familiarity with the methods of leadership will add to the repertory of alternatives any leader has and will help him/her to cope within the infinite possibility of situations that may at any time arise.

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