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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 but rewarding challenge for professors to synthesize 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, 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 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, 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

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) 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, 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 that identifies five sources of power: (a) reward power, (b) coercive power, (c) legitimate power, (d) expert power, and (e) referent power.

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 are associated with transformational leaders (Yukl, 1994). Transformational leadership often refers to the inspirational role of the leader with descriptive adjectives 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 & Miskel, 1996; Bass, 1990). The leader behavior description questionnaire (LBDQ) 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. Another application of this perspective is the managerial grid developed by Blake and Mouton (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

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 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 scale (LPC) 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 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, 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 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 or view the same situation from multiple perspectives (Bolman & Deal, 2003). A leader can improve the odds of being successful "with an artful 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 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.


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Vroom, V. H., & Yetton, P. W. (1973). Leadership and decision-making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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

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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