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Major approaches to the study of leadership.


The study of leadership has produced a multitude of perspectives and theories. It is a daunting daunt  
tr.v. daunt·ed, daunt·ing, daunts
To abate the courage of; discourage. See Synonyms at dismay.

[Middle English daunten, from Old French danter, from Latin
 but rewarding challenge for professors to synthesize To create a whole or complete unit from parts or components. See synthesis.  the literature and present it to aspiring leaders in a meaningful way.


The study of leadership has been a popular topic for debate since scholars first recognized the impact leadership has on the success of an organization. In higher education higher education

Study beyond the level of secondary education. Institutions of higher education include not only colleges and universities but also professional schools in such fields as law, theology, medicine, business, music, and art.
, investigative efforts into what epitomizes leadership have played an integral part in the development of educational leadership programs. What is leadership? What are the theoretical constructs taught to aspiring leaders? The purpose of this paper is to synthesize the literature on the major approaches to the study of leadership.

Major Approaches to the Study of Leadership

According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Wolverton, Gmelch, Montez, and Nies (2001), leadership is the essential element that holds an organization together while moving it forward. Definitions and assumptions about leadership are numerous and varied. As early as 5000 years ago, Egyptian hieroglyphics were written for the words leadership, leader, and follower. (Bass, 1990). Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, "looked at the requirements of the ideal leader of the ideal state" (Bass, p.4). In the Old and New Testaments as well as in Greek and Latin classics, leaders were called prophets, priests, kings, chiefs, and heroes. Although the advent of leadership can be traced to these early beginnings, leadership studies did not begin in earnest until after World War I (Lathan, 1993). Between 1945 and 1960, researchers devoted their efforts to empirical studies Empirical studies in social sciences are when the research ends are based on evidence and not just theory. This is done to comply with the scientific method that asserts the objective discovery of knowledge based on verifiable facts of evidence. , but by the 1970s, research became more theory driven (Bass, 1990). As a result, the study of leadership has produced a multitude of perspectives and theories.

Trait Theories Trait theory is an approach to personality theory in psychology.

The emotions, thoughts and behavior patterns that a person has are typically referred to as a personality (Kassin, 2003) and can vary immensely between individuals.

The trait theory attempts to identify specific personal characteristics that explain why certain individuals have the ability to succeed in leadership positions and others do not. In the early part of the 20th century, this theory was known as the Great Man Theory of Leadership and is supported today by individuals who consider the leadership of a "great man" (Iacocca, MacArthur, Kennedy, MLK MLK Martin Luther King
MLK Milk
MLK Medialess License Kit
) to have been transformational (Bass, 1990). Research using this theory has examined leaders with various attributes and personality traits. These traits include physical characteristics, personality, social background, and ability (Bensimon, Neumann & Birnbaum, 1989; Yukl, 1994). It should be noted "some of the variance in who emerges as a leader is due to situational effects, and some is due to the interaction of traits and situation" (Bass, 1990, p. 87). Since few people demonstrate consistent traits under all conditions, opposing characteristics, such as managing and nurturing, may actually indicate effective leadership depending on the situation.

Power and Influence Theories

The power and influence perspective focuses on the use of power by effective leaders. Two major themes have been identified: (a) social power and (b) social exchange. The social power approach considers how leaders influence followers followers

see dairy herd.
, and the social exchange approach discusses the give-and-take relationship between leaders and followers through which leaders are themselves influenced as they try to influence others (Bensimon et al., 1989). From this perspective, social power is the ability to take charge and to initiate change. It is a relationship in which the more powerful person is able to obtain compliance with his or her ideas (Bass, 1990). Understanding power involves distinguishing between various types of power. French and Raven (1959) developed a typology typology /ty·pol·o·gy/ (ti-pol´ah-je) the study of types; the science of classifying, as bacteria according to type.


the study of types; the science of classifying, as bacteria according to type.
 that identifies five sources of power: (a) reward power, (b) coercive power, (c) legitimate power, (d) expert power, and (e) referent power Referent power is individual power based on a high level of identification with, admiration of, or respect for the powerholder.

Nationalism, Patrotism, Celebrities and well-respected people are examples of Referent Power in effect.

Social exchange explains how power shifts due to interactions between leaders and followers. It highlights a reciprocal relationship between leader and the group in exchange for the group's approval and compliance with the leader's demands (Birnbaum, 1988). Leaders gather power based on their positions and personalities as well as their expertise, but their authority is limited by their followers' expectations (Hollander, 1985). Since leadership is related to fulfilling the expectations of the group, leaders must either meet these expectations or change them. This concept is at the center of the difference in transactional and transformational leadership (Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Birnbaum, 1988; Burns, 1978). Transactional leadership involves an exchange that is a bargaining process and projects values such as honesty, fairness, and trust (Burns). Followers accept change and tolerate a leader's behavior that differs from their expectations more willingly if leaders first demonstrate their expertise and conformity to the group's norms (Bensimon et al., 1989).

Transformational leadership goes beyond this basic level of meeting the needs of subordinates and "engages followers in such a way as to raise them to new levels of morality and motivation" (Bensimon et al., 1989, p. 10). Values such as liberty, justice, peace and humanitarianism hu·man·i·tar·i·an·ism  
1. Concern for human welfare, especially as manifested through philanthropy.

2. The belief that the sole moral obligation of humankind is the improvement of human welfare.

 are associated with transformational leaders (Yukl, 1994). Transformational leadership often refers to the inspirational role of the leader with descriptive adjectives Noun 1. descriptive adjective - an adjective that ascribes to its noun the value of an attribute of that noun (e.g., `a nervous person' or `a musical speaking voice')
qualifying adjective

adjective - a word that expresses an attribute of something
 such as brilliant, forceful, charismatic (Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Bensimon et al.; Burns, 1978). The idea that transformational leaders "do the right things" while managers "do things right" (Bennis, 1999) contributes to the popularity of transformational leadership.

Behavioral Theories

A third theory centers on what leaders actually do rather than on their personal characteristics. The Ohio State leadership studies of the 1940s are the most well-known and influential research inquiry in this area (Bensimon et al., 1989; Hoy Hoy, island, 13 mi (21 km) long and 6 mi (9.7 km) wide, off N Scotland, second largest of the Orkney Islands. It is located at the southwestern side of the Scapa Flow anchorage.  & Miskel, 1996; Bass, 1990). The leader behavior description questionnaire (LBDQ LBDQ Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire ) developed measures two basic dimensions of leadership: initiating structure (task oriented) and consideration (relationship oriented) (Hoy & Miskel). Since early studies using the LBDQ indicated that the two dimensions are separate and distinct, dividing each dimension into high or low sections can create four quadrants or leadership styles. According to the LBDQ, administrators are most effective when they score high in consideration and initiating structure Consideration and Initiating Structure are two dimensions of leader behavior identified as a result of the Ohio State Leadership Studies. According to the findings of these studies, leaders exhibit two types of behaviors, people-oriented (consideration) and task oriented . Another application of this perspective is the managerial grid developed by Blake and Mouton mouton

lamb pelt made to resemble seal or beaver.
 (1964). It measures a person's leadership style by "identifying the degree of concern for production (task oriented) on a nine-point scale on one axis and concern for people (relationship oriented) on a nine-point scale on the other axis" (Bensimon et al., 1989, p. 13). The contention is effective leaders score high on both production and people concerns. The grid has often been criticized for ignoring that behaviors must be relevant to the situation in order to be effective (Bensimon et al.; Hoy & Miskel, 1996).

Contingency Theories Contingency theory refers to any of a number of management theories. Several contingency approaches were developed concurrently in the late 1960s.

They suggested that previous theories such as Weber's bureaucracy and Taylor's scientific management had failed because they

This approach focuses on the importance of situational factors that require different behaviors in order for leaders to be effective. Since effective behavior is contingent on Adj. 1. contingent on - determined by conditions or circumstances that follow; "arms sales contingent on the approval of congress"
contingent upon, dependant on, dependant upon, dependent on, dependent upon, depending on, contingent
 the situation, contingency theories emphasize the importance of factors outside the organization rather than internal variables (Bensimon et al., 1989). These factors include the nature of the external environment, the type of task, physical characteristics and personality traits of the leader, expectations of the followers, energy and activity levels, task and interpersonal competence, presence or absence of a crisis, or any one of several other factors depending upon the specific theory (Bensimon et al.; Hoy & Miskel, 1996). According to Birnbaum (1988), the essence of the contingency theory is that different forms of organization and administrative leadership prove to be the most effective under different conditions.

There are several well-known contingency models, but Fiedler's 1967 theory is the first and most renowned. This model proposes that most leaders are either task oriented or relations oriented and suggests it is important to understand the leader's personality and degree of situational control (Fiedler, 1967). Fiedler's contingency theory uses the Least Preferred Coworker co·work·er or co-work·er  
One who works with another; a fellow worker.
 scale (LPC (language) LPC - A variant of C designed ca 1988 to program LP MUDs. ) to understand a leader's behavior by asking the leader to rate his or her "least preferred coworker" on a set of bipolar adjective scales (friendly-unfriendly, cooperative-uncooperative). Those who score high on the LPC scale are more considerate con·sid·er·ate  
1. Having or marked by regard for the needs or feelings of others. See Synonyms at thoughtful.

2. Characterized by careful thought; deliberate.
 and supportive of personal relationships, while those who score low are more task-oriented (Fiedler & Chemers, 1974). From the contingency perspective, effective leadership is adapting to situational factors. The most effective way of improving leadership is not to change a person's style of leadership but to place leaders into positions that match their leadership style (Bensimon et al., 1989; Fielder & Chemers).

In the effort to improve Fiedler's contingency model, Fiedler and Garcia (1987) developed a new approach called the cognitive resource theory. This model incorporated two previously disregarded factors: (a) the leader's intelligence and (b) the leader's competence and experience (Fiedler & Garcia). The association of intelligence and experience to the leader's effectiveness depends on multiple factors, including the level of stress, the degree of group support, the directive or non-directive attitude of the leader, and the leader's emphasis on task or relationship motivation (Bensimon et al., 1989). There are many other contingency theories that have been developed since Fiedler's work. Some of the more significant theorists and their models include: House's (1971) path-goal theory, Yukl's (1971) multiple-linkage model, Vroom and Yetton's (1973) decision-making theory, Hersey and Blanchard's (1977) situational theory, and Kerr and Jermier's (1978) leader substitutes theory. Each approach highlights a different leadership situation and emphasizes the necessity for leaders to utilize different leadership behaviors depending on situational factors.

Cultural and Symbolic Theories

This perspective represents a shift in thinking about organizations and leadership from models that assume organizations can be described, analyzed, and improved to ones that assume organizations are created, invented and interpreted (Bensimon et al., 1989). The cultural or symbolic leader encourages followers to develop shared meanings that define the organization's culture. Leadership of this type is known as "the management of meaning" (Bensimon et al.). The study of leadership in this area is focused in three ways: (a) on heroic leaders, (b) on leaders at the highest echelons, and (c) on individuals rather than teams (Bryman, 1996). These leaders give "symbolic meaning to events that others may see as perplexing per·plex  
tr.v. per·plexed, per·plex·ing, per·plex·es
1. To confuse or trouble with uncertainty or doubt. See Synonyms at puzzle.

2. To make confusedly intricate; complicate.
, senseless, or chaotic" (Bensimon et al., 1989, p. 46). Cultural and symbolic leadership is necessary in order to sustain and strengthen the culture that already exists as well as to implement changes (Dill, 1982; Yukl, 1994).

Cognitive Theories

Cognitive theories emphasize leadership as coming into existence from the social cognition Social cognition is the study of how people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations. Social cognition’s focus on information processing has many affinities with its sister discipline, cognitive psychology.  of groups and are similar to cultural and symbolic approaches. In fact, an early study on the cognitive aspect of leadership described the interaction of group members in terms of actors, audience, front stage, and backstage (Bass, 1990). This suggests that leadership is a social attribution that is directed towards people filling roles identified as leadership positions (Bensimon et al., 1989). Cognitive theories of leadership are associated with a set of myths that influence the perceptions of leaders as well as of followers, so that leaders are likely to have inflated beliefs in their own effectiveness (Bensimon et al.). Cognitive theories of leadership examine the behaviors of leaders and attribute the cause of these behaviors to diverse personal qualities or external constraints (Bass, 1990). Assessment of a leader's effectiveness may be related less to the actions of the leader and more to the "perceptions of followers of the degree to which the leader appears to do leader-like things" (Bensimon et al., 1989, p. 24).

Each of these six, diverse theories is still being studied and indicates a change of emphasis rather than the end of an earlier approach (Bryman, 1996). Leadership exists to the degree that people believe it does, and that belief depends on how individuals, through their interactions, create the realities of organizational life and delineate the roles of leaders within them (Bensimon et al., 1989). Several schools of thought have emerged from the social sciences that contain distinctive concepts and assumptions that represent a unique view of how organizations work and the leadership that is needed by the organizations (Bolman & Deal, 2003). Competing theories present narrow versions of reality and grand promises for the future. According to Bolman and Deal, "modern managers trying to get on top of things encounter a cacophony of voices and visions" (p. 11).

Organizational Theory of Bolman and Deal

Although there are no right or wrong ways to view organizations, one of the most practical theories, suggested by Bolman and Deal (1984), advocates looking at organizations from four different perspectives or flames. These frames are often described as windows, maps, tools, lenses, orientations and perspectives because these images suggest multiple functions (Bolman & Deal, 2003). The four frames are: (a) structural (emphasizes specialized roles and formal relationships), (b) human resource (considers the needs of the individual), (c) political (focuses on bargaining, negotiating, coercion, and compromise), and (d) symbolic (views organizations as cultures with rituals and ceremonies). Each of the frames is powerful and coherent, and collectively, they make it possible to reframe Re`frame´   

v. t. 1. To frame again or anew.
 or view the same situation from multiple perspectives (Bolman & Deal, 2003). A leader can improve the odds of being successful "with an artful art·ful  
1. Exhibiting art or skill: "The furniture is an artful blend of antiques and reproductions" Michael W. Robbins.

 appreciation of the four lenses and how to use them [in order] to understand and influence what's really going on" (Bolman & Deal, 2003, p. 40).


Leadership is a phenomenon that has long been recognized but is not easily defined. The study of leadership has produced a multitude of perspectives and theories. Each major premise major premise
The premise containing the major term in a syllogism.

Noun 1. major premise - the premise of a syllogism that contains the major term (which is the predicate of the conclusion)
major premiss
 about leadership is accurate under certain circumstances, and as a result, there is not a consensus on a specific theory of leadership. This article is a synthesis of the major leadership theories that are often taught by professors in educational leadership to aspiring leaders.


Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass & Stogdill's Handbook of Leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: The Free Press.

Bennis, W. (1999). An invented life: Reflections on leadership and change (chap. 5). Retrieved July 1, 2003, from

Bennis, W. G., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper Row.

Bensimon, E. M., Neumann, A., & Birnbaum, R. (1989). Making sense of administrative leadership: The "L" word in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher education report. Washington: The George Washington University George Washington University, at Washington, D.C.; coeducational; chartered 1821 as Columbian College (one of the first nonsectarian colleges), opened 1822, became a university in 1873, renamed 1904. .

Birnbaum, R. (1988). How colleges work: The cybernetics cybernetics [Gr.,=steersman], term coined by American mathematician Norbert Wiener to refer to the general analysis of control systems and communication systems in living organisms and machines.  of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco San Francisco (săn frănsĭs`kō), city (1990 pop. 723,959), coextensive with San Francisco co., W Calif., on the tip of a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, which are connected by the strait known as the Golden : Jossey-Bass.

Blake, R. R., & Moulton, J. S. (1964). The managerial grid. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Bolman. L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1984). Modern approaches to understanding and managing organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing reframing (rē·frāˑ·ming),
n the revisiting and reconstruction of a patient's view of an experience to imbue it with a different usually more positive meaning in the
 organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper Row.

Bryman, A. (1996). Leadership in organizations. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W.

R. Nord (Eds.). Handbook of organizational studies Organizational studies, organizational behaviour, and organizational theory are related terms for the academic study of organizations, examining them using the methods of economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, communication studies, and psychology. . (pp. 276-292). London: Sage Publications This article or section needs sources or references that appear in reliable, third-party publications. Alone, primary sources and sources affiliated with the subject of this article are not sufficient for an accurate encyclopedia article. .

Dill, D. D. (1982). The Management of Academic Culture: Notes on the management of meaning and social integration. Higher Education, 11:303- 320.

Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A Theory of leadership effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fiedler, F. E., & Chemers, M. M. (1974). Leadership and effective management. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.

Fiedler, F. E., & Garcia, J. E. (1987). New approaches to effective leadership. New York: John Wiley John Wiley may refer to:
  • John Wiley & Sons, publishing company
  • John C. Wiley, American ambassador
  • John D. Wiley, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • John M. Wiley (1846–1912), U.S.
 & Sons.

French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright & A. Zander zan·der  
n. pl. zander or zan·ders
A common European pikeperch (Stizostedion lucioperca) valued as a food fish.

[German, from Low German Sander
 (Eds.), Group dynamics group dynamics: see group psychotherapy. : Research and theory (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources The fancy word for "people." The human resources department within an organization, years ago known as the "personnel department," manages the administrative aspects of the employees.  (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N J: Prentice-Hall.

Hollander, E. P. (1985). Leadership and Power. In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (3rd ed.). New York: Random House.

House, R. J. (1971). A path-goal of leadership effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly Administrative Science Quarterly, founded in 1956, is one of the most eminent academic journals in the field of organizational studies. It is published by Cornell University.

People claimed to have been involved as founders include James D.
, 16, 321-338.

Hoy, W. K., & Miskel, C. G. (1996).Educational administration: Theory, research, and practice (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kerr, S., & Jermier, J. M. (1978). Substitutes for leadership: Their meaning and measurement. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 375-403.

Lathan, C. A. (1993). The Navy Environmental health officer: Analysis and comparison of the accession route of the naval environmental health officers that possess strong leadership abilities. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California The U.S. News & World Report ranked USC 27th among all universities in the United States in its 2008 ranking of "America's Best Colleges", also designating it as one of the "most selective universities" for admitting 8,634 of the almost 34,000 who applied for freshman admission , 1993).

Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to Lead in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.

Vroom, V. H., & Yetton, P. W. (1973). Leadership and decision-making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press The University of Pittsburgh Press is a scholarly publishing house and a major American university press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

The Press was established in September 1936 by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman.

Wolverton, M., Gmelch, W. H., Montez, J., & Nies, C. T. (2001). The changing nature of the academic deanship. ASHE-ERIC higher education report, 28(1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Yukl, G. A. (1971). Toward a behavioral theory of leadership. Organizational Behavioral and Human Performance, 6, 414-440.

Yukl, G. A. (1994). Leadership in Organizations (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Cheryl McFadden,, East Carolina University East Carolina University is a public, coeducational, intensive research university located in Greenville, North Carolina, United States. Named East Carolina University by statue and commonly known as ECU or East Carolina  

Richard Eakin, East Carolina University

Susan Beck-Frazier, East Carolina University

James McGlone, East Carolina University

McFadden, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership. Eakin, Ph.D., is the former chancellor of East Carolina University and professor in the Department of Educational Leadership. Beck-Frazier and McGlone are doctoral students in the Department of Educational Leadership.
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Author:McGlone, James
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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