Even the most cursory review of
leadership theory and research over the past century is likely to make your
head spin. On one hand, some managers probably think that the myriad of approaches
to effective leadership means theory has failed to answer the million-dollar
question “what makes a great leader?” After all, how is a practicing manager expected
to make sense of all these theories?
One the other hand, other managers have
embraced what is most useful to them from the theory, even though it might not
be definitive, and achieved extraordinary results. In short, leadership
theories have a lot to offer aspiring and existing leaders. Let’s take a closer
Supporters of trait theory, which emerged
in the early 20th century, claim leaders are different to
non-leaders, because they possess certain innate character traits.
Kirkpatrick and Locke (1996) identify six
traits which make leaders differ from non-leaders, including:
- The desire to achieve;
- Cognitivemability; and
- Knowledge of the business.
Other, less important traits include
charisma, creativity/originality and flexibility.
Similarly, Dubrin, Dalgleish and Miller (2006) draw together the vast collection of traits associated with
this theory into two distinct categories: general personality traits and task-related
personality traits. General personality
traits contribute to success in a work and personal context and include:
- Emotional stability;
- Sense of humour
- Warmth; and
- A high tolerance for frustration.
Task-related personality traits are associated with task accomplishment and include:
- Locus of control;
- Emotional intelligence;
- Flexibility; and
A significant body of evidence exists to
show that traits do matter. For example, studies by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) and
Goleman (1998) show leaders are different from non-leaders and traits do have a
consistent impact on leader effectiveness.
Still, many authors have criticised the
trait approach to leadership for being too simplistic. It does not
tell us which traits are the most important in which situations, or the amount
of the trait required. Nor is there universal agreement amongst trait theorists
as to which traits contribute to effective leadership.
At this point, the behavioural and
contingency theories of leadership come in to play.
and Contingency theories of leadership
The behavioural school of thought
endorses the idea that successful organisational leaders routinely exhibit certain
behaviours. This main impact of this theory,
when it emerged in the 1950s, was the notion that leadership was not
necessarily an inborn trait but a methodology that could be taught to
employees. What a great relief this was for the many aspiring leaders out there
concerned they lacked the right character traits to be successful!
25-year longitudinal study at Harvard University, Kouzes and Posner found that exemplary
leaders demonstrate five (5) core practices:
Model the Way
speak louder than words: ''Leaders' deeds are far more important than their
words...Exemplary leaders go first. They go first by setting the example
through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their
beliefs.'' Exemplary leaders have a philosophy about their organisation,
leadership and teamwork. They know what their own values are, particularly
around how people are treated.
Inspire a shared vision
view leading as a journey, vision is simply the destination you want others
to join you in pursuing. Leaders cannot expect to be followed if they have no
idea where they want to go. Exemplary leaders envision the future, dreaming
how they would like it to be. When that vision is clear to them, they can
communicate it enthusiastically to those whose buy-in they need.
Challenge the process
leader entails initiating ''a change from the status quo”. Effective leaders
are always experimenting with new ways of doing things, searching for
“opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve”. According to Kouzes and Posner,
''the leader's primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the
support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system to get
Enable others to act
practice acknowledges that successful leadership and accomplishments are not
the result of a single person. Effective leaders listen to ideas, treat
people with respect, foster teamwork and collaboration, and encourage others
to exceed their own expectations. A high level of trust exists and people
have the freedom to make mistakes, rectify these and drive success.
Encourage and recognise
leaders know that colleagues require and deserve recognition and celebration.
Effective leaders find innovative ways to celebrate goals that are reached,
and encourage and motivate teams and individuals. This practice fosters a
strong sense of community.
contingency (or situational) theory of leadership acknowledges the interaction
between a leader’s traits, a leader’s behaviours and the situation in which the
leader is leading.
History shows us that leaders can lose power and influence as the situation changes, for
example, Winston Churchill in a victorious Britain immediately after World War
II. The same applies to leaders in organisations. Applying a certain set of traits and behaviours in
one organisational context might lead to great success. Try the same approach
in a different organisational setting or situation, where employees have
different needs or environmental factors have shifted, and the same leader
might fail miserably.
So, what does this all mean in terms of effective
leadership? And are we any further along the path to understanding what makes a
I think so. What the broad and varied
body of theory and research on leadership tells us is that there are many
appropriate ways to lead or styles of leadership. Traits are important. But
traits alone are not sufficient for successful organisational leadership. Leaders
who possess the requisite traits must behave in a certain way and take certain
actions to be successful. And there’s one more important point.
What makes a good leader truly
outstanding is a deep understanding of their traits and behavioural preferences
and the ability to adapt their leadership approach to suit the specific organisational
context and circumstances they find themselves in at any given time. Put
simply, great leaders understand that “one size doesn’t fit all”. They think
about the culture of their organisation, the characteristics of their followers
(or team) and the external environment, and shape their style and behaviour
If you are looking for ways to improve your personal and
professional effectiveness or take your leadership performance to the next
level, Best Practice Consulting can help you. Contact us today at http://www.bestpracticeconsulting.com.au/contact-us
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