Module One

Module Two

Module Three

Module Four



Theories of Leadership

The categories below are summarized in much more detail in Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership. If you plan to focus on leadership as an area of interest, this is the single best source of information about leadership research. It is an expensive book but worth every penny.

Great Man Theories

We tend to subscribe to great man theories. Moses led the Jews from bondage. Churchill led us through WWII. Lenin was responsible for the Russian Revolution. William James held that changes in society were due to great men. Lincoln is one example. The great man theories are still popular. We have testimonial literature about companies turned around by great leaders like Lee Iacocca. MacArthur is seen as a leader who led us to victory in WWII. JFK is revered as a great leader. MLKing is another. What is it about these figures that makes them great leaders?Woods (1913) argued that inheritance was key, a genetic argument. Wiggam (1931) said that the survival of the fittest and marriage with the right connections led to an aristocracy of leadership.

Trait Theories

This theory began with the leader and sought to describe the traits possessed by those who exemplified leadership. Bird (1940) compiled a list of 79 traits of leaders. A number of writers explored leadership in different areas (e. g. Smith and Krueger for educators in 1933; Jenkins for military leaders in 1947). Stogdill criticized this approach in 1948 by pointing out that the situation had often as much to do with leadership as the person.

Situational Theories

This theory held that leaders are made not born. It is the situation that creates the leader. Stogdill (1975) was a proponent of this approach. Hegel argued that the great man was an expression of his times. What great men did was to fulfill what was needed. One can track this notion in other philosophic thought. Spenser saw societies as evolving. Marx saw economic necessity as making history. Durkheim saw social needs as influential. Murphy (1941) saw leadership as a function of the occasion. Bogardus (1918) argued leadership is determined by the nature of the group and the problem the group must solve.

Political Theories of Leadership

Political theorists have provided prescriptions for leadership from Plato onward. Machiavelli stands as one obvious example. There are many others. Of interest is Marx who focuses on the economic determination of history. Marx laid out strong suggestions for leadership. Mao Zedungadoped some of these with what has been called a mass-line leadership. Mao included operant conditioning, consciousness raising, confession and self criticism, and critical feedback. The masses and their needs were to be studied by the leader who would turn this knowledge into ideas that would be taken back to the masses and explained and implemented. Nazi leadership beliefs centered about the Fuhrerprincip or the notion that unquestioning obedience to superiors produces order and prosperity that would be shared by those worthy. Emperor worship is found in the east. Fedualistic, authoritarian, and ethnocentric, such leadership normally bases itself on the need for social order and harmony.

Humanistic Theories

When the leader understands her role as that of providing freedom for individuals to actualize their individual potentials and to be fulfilled as working human beings,she is fitting her thinking under a humanistic leadership label. Humanistic theories arise from a social-psychological foundation of democratic and individualistic values. McGregor, Argyris, Likert, Blake and Mouton, Maslow,Hersey and Blanchard are all scholars who wrote from a humanistic perspective that saw the development of the individual as one of the key functions of a leader. McGregor, for example, was the inventor of Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X holds that people are not motivated and must be whipped and forced to work. Theory Y holds that people are intrinsically motivated and the leader needs to harness this pre-existing motivation to accept responsibility.

Interaction and Social Learning Theories

Another set of leadership theories concern both the nature of the leader’s interaction with followers and with the needs and characteristics of the followers. The leader-follower relationship is the key. Below are some examples.

Leader-role theory:

The nature of the individual and the demands of the situation permit only a few individuals to be successful as leaders or even to be selected as leaders. For example, the leader is expected to play a role that is different from that of the other members of the group. Some have defined this as the role expectations of the leader. Another set of beliefs holds that what is defined in the role is not the leadership manifested. That is only what the leader is supposed to do. Leadership can be seen not in the role but in the discretionary activities the leader does beyond the simple role expectations. As a sidelight that I view as important, Homans (1950) argued that leadership was a part of an organization and not confined to one individual. His focus was on the status accorded individuals. The more status we have in a group, the more that our individuals norms will conform to the group norms; the higher the status we have in a group, the wider would be our range of interactions within the group and the more often we will initiate interactions. This work has implications for the last unit we will discuss—self organizing systems.

Attainment theories:

What influences which leaders emerge in a group? The theories that seek to answer this question are mainly structural theories, e. g. they depend upon the structure of the group to explain why certain leaders emerge. You can this of this as a sort of “structural determinism. ” Bass and Stogdill write:” The probability of the success of an attempted act of leadership is a function of the member’s perceptions of their freedom to accept or reject the suggested structure “(or overture of leadership(1990, page 45). Another was to explain this is that the leader emerges who is best able to help the group achieve its goals and accomplish its tasks. House’s famous “path-goal” theory is such an approach. House argued that the leader clarifies the goals of followers and helps them see the path to attainment. The leader shows the followers where the rewards lie as part of this goal clarification. Fiedler also had a theory about leadership that was popular. Fielder said that the effectiveness of the task or relation oriented leader was contingent upon the demands of the situation. Hence, leadership is contingent upon the situation. Thus, a military leader facing a military crisis will be a different leader than a college department chair faced with business as usual.

Vertical-Dyadic Linkage:

Most leadership theories examining interactions hold that all leaders treat all followers more or less equally. This theory (Graen, 1976) holds that the leader behaves differently with each follower. Graen said that leaders categorize individuals as belonging to an in-group or an out groupIn-group members are allowed to be more independent of leaders scrutiny but they also receive more attention and recognition. As a consequence they perform better than out-group members. While this research has been received critically, it is a concept that may have great utility in educational organizational settings.

Exchange Theory:

These theories hold that individuals make contributions at some cost to themselves and receive benefits at a cost to the group. Interactions continue because individuals find some benefit to a mutually rewarding social exchange. Blau (1964) was a leading proponent of this theory (a theory based in economic reasoning). For example, most people consider being awarded a leadership position a reward; most people think it is also rewarding to be associated with high status leaders. Leaders retain and replenish power by providing valuable services to the group. The group provides the leader with status and esteem in return for help in attaining the group’s goals.

Hybrid Explanations

Many theories combine perspectives. Of these, transformational leadership and visionary leadership surface as of interest to educational administrators.

Tranformational Leadership

Burns (1978) is thought to be the originator of the concept of transformational leadership. Others had observed that leadership is more than just a mere exchange of mutually satisfying returns. Burns thought that leaders operate at a more elevated level than just tangible inducements. The transformational leader asks followers to move beyond their narrow self interests, to develop themselves over a long term and to be aware of what is really important. For Burns, when this happens, followers become leaders. This understanding of leadership is in contrast to the many theories that operate from a view of the leader as a manager and role person. The transformational leader is endowed with qualities that cause followers to accept the leader as a role model and as a person to be followed. Leaders develop in subordinates an expectation of high performance. This means the leader must be the developer of people and a builder of teams.

Visionary leadership:

In the 1990s the use of the term, Visionary Leadership, became popular. In a way, those advocating for this type of leadership had taken the concept of transformational leadership and re-worked it slightly. Now the role leader, that person who held the top role, was responsible for establishing or articulating the essential purposes of the organization or group. All organizations have essential purposes, the argument went. The visionary leader is she or he who translates those important purposes for the group in motivational ways.


Leadership studies have gone from great man theories to trait theories to environmental theories to social/psychological theories to combination or hybrid theories. All continue to be used. This point is important. Just because Victorian England was fascinated with the stories of great men and just because Civil War buffs continue to be deeply interested in the personalities of Civil War generals does not mean “great” men and women theories of leadership are not popular. They are. The search for definitive understandings of leadership is an understandable search. Like the notion of the fountain of life, our belief is that if we look long and hard enough, we will unlock the mysteries of why some people become leaders and some people don’t. Realize that this is an American search to a large degree. In a feudal society, there would be other obvious answers to why some people become leaders and some don’t. One would be that “they are born to it. ”


mbryant1@unl. edu

http://tc. unl. edu/mbryant