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Decoding Theories of Leadership

Keywords: leadership, leadership theories, trait theory, behavioural theory, contingency theories, path-goal theory.


“Leadership has a range of definitions, but at its simplest, it is concerned with the ability to influence others to achieve goals.” (Hughes, 1996)

What makes a leader?

According to the Global Leadership Forecast of 2018, organisations which have an inclusive approach to leadership training, are likely to outperform those organisations that confine development to only the management by 4.2 times.

In this article, I would be breaking down what it means to be an efficient leader. Someone who needn’t be born with a certain set of attributes, but who has the ability to motivate, tackle obstacles, learn over time and adapt to their surroundings. Looking at theories over time, we can see the development done in this sphere to better encourage the growth of well-rounded leaders.

Leadership theories have been around since the 19th century. Beginning with the Great Man Theory proposed by Thomas Carlyle, the basis of this theory was simple.

It stated that the world progressed due to the achievements of a few great people, for example, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King and more. He believed that the decisions and actions of these few people paved the way for the future of mankind. He urged individuals to look to these men to better understand their true nature. This theory then paved the way for the next theory of leadership, namely, the Trait Theory.

Trait Theory

This was the first time leadership theories were studied in an organized manner. In the 1930s, this theory sought out to find commonalities in great leaders. It identified individual characteristics that made people good leaders. This theory looked at traits such as; intelligence, aggressiveness, decisiveness, creativity and more.

A multivariable study conducted by Smith and Foti in 1998 found a significant positive association between leader emergence and individuals high on dominance, intelligence, and general self-efficacy. This study shows promise for identifying individuals perceived to be emergent leaders (Smith and Foti 1998).

Behaviour Theory

Then in the 1950s, a new theory of understanding leadership was proposed. This new model was known as the behaviour theory. Moving on from what traits a possible leader could have, this theory looked at the way leaders behave. This theory states that a leader is not born, but one can learn to become an efficient leader. Two dimensions of leadership behaviour came to the forefront, namely:

  1. Consideration - how leaders show support, concern and respect for their subordinates

  2. Initiating Structure - refers to the degree to which a leader defines and structures his role and those of his subordinates toward goal attainment.

The behavioural theory also proposes eight styles of leadership, participative leaders, dictatorial leaders, task-oriented leaders, sound leaders, people-oriented leaders and more. These different types of leaders would tackle problems in their own separate way. For example, if a team was facing a problem, a participative leader would facilitate meetings, take suggestions and solve the problem from there. While, on the other hand, a task-oriented leader would look into the delegation of work, and the work process. This theory evolved from the trait theory, although it explains leadership behaviour in a vacuum. The next theory aims to solve this disadvantage.

Contingency Theories

In the 1960s, contingency theories became popular, they took into account the contextual and situational variables. The two most popular theories are Fiedler’s Contingency Theory (1967) and the Path-Goal Theory. We will look into the Path-Goal Theory in this article.

Path-Goal Theory

This theory developed by Robert House in 1971, states that leaders will be effective if they can complement the environment wherein their subordinates work, by providing them with necessary cognitive clarifications. To ensure that their subordinates believe that they can attain their work goals and achieve intrinsic satisfaction from this goal attainment.

This theory identifies four different types of leader behaviours:

  1. Directive leader behaviours - a leader who lets subordinates know what is expected of them, provides structure and performance goals.

  2. Supportive leadership - a friendly and approachable leader whose focus is on interpersonal relations.

  3. Participative leadership - is characterized by a leader who consults with subordinates, and takes their suggestions seriously into consideration before making a decision.

  4. Achievement-oriented leader behaviours - set challenging goals, expects subordinates to perform at their highest level.

These leader behaviours are predicted to directly affect the subordinates values and expectancies. These expectancies would then affect the subordinate effort, performance and satisfaction. Although, these two factors are contingent on the subordinate’s characteristics as well as the environment.

A meta-analysis conducted on this theory supported the claims of directive behaviour, employee satisfaction, and task characteristics although it failed to predict performance and supportive behaviours. This theory is still in need of more testing to solidify its claims.

To summarize, a paper on leadership behaviour published in 2012 by Gary Yukl stated that there are eventually a number of factors that influence how efficient a leader can be. These factors are the situation the group is in, the characteristics of the group, and the leader in power. These three factors combine to determine the type of leadership necessary as well as the effectiveness of the leadership style.


About the Author:

Hey there, I'm Tanvi!

A third-year Psychology student from Fergusson College, Pune, I've had a keen interest in all things psychology right from my school days. I aim to further take up Organisational or Clinical Psychology in the future. In my free time, you'd find me reading, baking, or walking my dog!



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Hughes, R., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (1996). Leadership. Chicago, Irwin.


Indeed Editorial Team. (2021, February 23). What is Behavioral Leadership Theory? Definition and types of Behavioral Leadership. Indeed Career Guide. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from

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Yukl, G. (2012). Effective leadership behavior: What we know and what questions need more attention. Academy of Management perspectives, 26(4), 66-85.

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