Leadership Theories in Organizations

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A leader is a person who has the ability to influence people to perform a given task. The person possesses personal characteristics like being intelligent, understanding, diligence, and integrity that creates an influence on people to do as he wants (Locke & Shelley 1991). Leadership, therefore, involves that continued process of making people achieve a certain goal. In an organizational context, leaders are usually chosen as per their management experience, personal qualities, and even their educational backgrounds.

In our contemporary society leaders apply different leadership styles to achieve organizational objectives. These styles however are applied depending on the organizational climate that prevails at the time. Leaders may apply democracy, autocracy, and lasses faire styles to enforce effective performance.

From time immemorial people have come up with varied theories to explain the emergence, growth, and existence of leadership. Most of these theories were devised based on people’s assumptions and observations. Most of the available leadership theories are subject to criticism and do not at times describe the current types of leaders.

The Great man’s theory

The great man’s theory asserts that effective leaders are born. That is, a child takes after his or her parents (Carlyle 1841). The theory emphasizes that one becomes a leader if his or her parents possessed the leadership skills and qualities because they get to pass on to the person. It is thus deductible that leaders would only emerge from certain families that dominate leadership skills. However, this is not the reality on the ground. Today we are witnessing great leaders who hail from families that have never gotten a leader. For instance, the family of president Barrack Obama has never had another leader. However, Obama has been found to be among the greatest leaders to have ever been born in the world. The theory was being used by its proponents to promote the culture of monarchy where leaders only came from a single-family.

Trait theory

his theory shares close sentiments as those of great man’s theory. The theory dictates that leadership is founded on an individual’s characteristics, skills and talents. It differs a little from the great man’s theory in the sense that a person inherits specific leadership tactics to become an efficient leader (Lewin et al 1939). These leadership characteristics and behavior include a person having self-confidence, good interpersonal skills, and problem-solving techniques. Take a case of a consumer, she or he chooses a commodity that meets his or her own image. Consequently, this theory is subject to criticisms like, the inability to comprehensively take into account a person’s qualities and characteristics and the sense that traits are not universal. For example, apart from being intelligent and self-confident, a person has personal values and principles and this is usually not considered in the theory application. Moreover, different leadership qualities are needed in different situations for effective leadership and not just a set of inherited traits.

It is thus good to elaborate that in recent times when there are diversities in leadership approaches the trait theory needs to be revisited and modified to fit in our organizations. It is at this juncture that some researchers have changed their approach to the individual characteristics of a leader and have instead emphasized looking at the individual as a wholesome. That is the person’s values, believes principles and traditions (Foti & Hauenstein 2007). This thus paves the way to the next leadership theory.

Stylistic theory

This theory emerged as a result of critics of the trait theory. That is there was a need to look into leadership from a different perspective. This involved the identification of leaders through the way they carried themselves and the leadership styles they used in order to accomplish the organizational goals. Researchers like Lewin, Lippit and White in 1939 in their evaluation of leadership performances embarked on three leadership styles; democratic, laissez-faire and autocracy. It followed that those leaders that applied autocracy dictated what was to be done and the group members were required to adhere without questions. The leader did not involve the members in decision making and the entire performance appraisal was solely done by him or her.

On the other hand, the laissez-faire leader does not get involved in the decision-making of the group but leaves it at the discretion of the group members. Otherwise, a democratic leadership style is characterized by collective decision making, sharing of work and ideas, and participative leader. Performance appraisal is done objectively and according to merit. Thus of the three leadership styles, democratic leadership is most applicable in organizations as it facilitates the growth of employees and attainment of organizational goals and objectives.

This theory also illustrates that a leader can also influence people through reinforcement such as promoting employees that are found to be hardworking and committed to the organizational goals. This motivates the employees to do even better and the leader in question achieves the intended goal or task (Miltenberger 2004). This leadership theory is more advanced and effective compared to the above two. The main weakness of this theory is its assumption that leaders can be nurtured and are not born. This is not the case. In as much as one can gain leadership skills through training and experience, he or she also ought to have some inherent skills so as to reinforce his or her leadership skills. The theory overlooks the fact that there is no one universal method of leading. Based on the nature and size of an organization, leaders employ different leadership methods.

Situational theory

The situational theory is a critic of the trait and great man’s theories of leadership. It holds that individuals change with time, that is as time goes by the individual characteristics improve. According to the theory, “what an individual actually does when acting as a leader is in larger part dependent upon characteristics of the situation in which he functions.” (Hemphill 1949). It also argues that people react differently to different situations that they encounter. In essence, there is no one time that a leader will possess certain leadership qualities but instead, he or she acts at the spur of the moment (Wormer et al 2007). For example, a leader cannot act the same way when the organization is experiencing a crisis and when the organization is running well. It is quite obvious that during the crisis the leader may be forced to apply an autocratic leadership style to get hold of the situation. This would be through retaining the power and decision making as well as enforcement of compliance of rules and procedures laid down.

On the other hand, when the organization needs to enhance teamwork then it would be more appropriate to apply a democratic leadership style where everyone is involved in the decision-making of the organization. However, this theory has received criticisms from contingency theorists because not always that the leadership styles will fit in the different situations at hand.

Contingency theories

A number of contingent theories have been put down to discuss leadership. Some of them include Fred’s situational contingent theory, Vroom’s, and the path-goal theories. To start with, Fred’s theory of leadership explains that for effective leadership there needs to have control of the situation at hand. That is the leader is supposed to have the ability to create a good working relationship with the subordinates to ensure that what one needs to be done is achieved. Otherwise, the leader can also control the situation by altering the assignment itself in a way that the subordinates will be in a position to do it (Burns 1978).

Vroom’s theory is also similar to Fred’s because it makes a connection between the ways of leadership and how well to handle a situation at hand. On the other hand, the path-goal theory elaborates that a leader’s behavior through the creation of a supportive environment for the subordinates is bound to influence people to do a certain task (House 1996). It is a theory that calls for a mutual working relationship between the leader and the subordinates and requires reciprocation of duties. It holds that the leader should be involved in planning, organizing, and directing the operations of the employees. He or she should take care of the well-being of the subordinates by ensuring that they are well motivated and satisfied.

This theory has overlooked the fact that circumstances within the organizations are never fixed. Those who devised the theory did not have a clear conceptualization of leadership. The theory does not effectively distinguish between the manager’s traits and the traits exhibited by a leader. In developing this theory, the theorists overlooked the various alternatives available to leaders as well as the range of situations that leaders come across when in the line of duty.

Neo emergent theory

This theory outlines a very different perspective of leadership. It argues that a leader is identified by the information he or she gives and not by what he does. That is there is nothing like leadership qualities and characteristics possessed by leadership but the information they provide depicts them as strong leaders. This theory is subject to criticism because its facts are not well-founded and supported. It is difficult to determine good leaders by the mere information they deliver. This is because any other person can give quality information and that does not mean that he or she is a leader. At least a leader should have a history, that is, what he or she has done to prove to be a good leader, his or her character, and the values that he or she holds. An example is great naval hero Lord Nelson who wrote his experiences in the war he got involved in so as to receive a good welcome when he got back home.

Functional theory

This theory emphasizes that a good leader is one who can perform a variety of functions and duties to ensure that both individual and organizational goals are reached. That is, the leader is mandated to unite the subordinates and enhance their performance (Hackman & Wageman 2005).To start with the leader should be able to make the working environment comfortable. This means that the working spaces should be well designed and the working tools and equipment should be enough and updated. In addition, the leader should organize and direct the subordinates as well as coordinate all their activities. Moreover, the leader should embark on evaluating and measuring the subordinates’ performance as well as apply performance appraisal techniques to motivate them. This is usually achieved through the setting of performance standards and ensuring that the subordinates adhere to them.

Most organizations apply the functional theory as it is consistent with the organizational setup across the globe. It is a theory that would ensure that the employees get satisfied with their working conditions and thus are motivated to achieve the organizational goals. It also elaborates well how leadership is founded and the facts that are identified with an effective leader.

Emotional theory

The emotional theory holds that leaders do use their emotions to influence others and stimulate their actions. Leaders may have positive or negative moods. It is evident that if a leader expresses a positive mood to his or her subordinates they are subject to get the same mood and act as per the mood (Bono & Ilies 2006). For example take a case where the manager comes in the morning in a great mood and greets everyone, shares a word or two with the employees, and wishes them a good day. The employees are bound to take the same positive mood among them as well as in the way they perform their tasks. They will be motivated to achieve the performance standards set and at the end of the day, everyone will go home satisfied. On the other hand, if the manager comes and expresses a negative mood by summoning almost everyone in his or her office, quarreling here and there then he is subject to pass that mood to the subordinates. Eventually, nothing much will be achieved as the subordinates get demoralized.

It is thus important for a leader to have the ability to manage both his emotions and that of subordinates. He or she should ensure that he or she gets good feedback from the employees and acts on the same. The leader should also delegate some of his or her duties to the subordinates and enhance the working relations for the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. The emotional theory thus insinuates that whatever leaders give out is what they get in return.

Management theory

It is also known as the transactional theory of leadership and the leader holds the power to give rewards and inflict punishment on the subordinates’ performance. That is the performance standards are set and every subordinate is notified of what is expected of him or her, and failure to do so he or she will be subjected to punishment. The leader has also mandated to coach the subordinates if the expected targets are not reached (Yukl 2006).

However, this theory does not comprehensively cover all the aspects of leadership and thus cannot be applicable in this dynamic era. Organizations cannot be operated on the basis of punishments and rewards only. If applied in the organizations it is subject to hinder the achievement of the organizational goals as well as meeting the employees’ needs.

Relationship theory

This theory involves where a leader sets an example for the subordinates and it is also referred to as the transformational theory of leadership. The leader uses his or her personal qualities and abilities to set the pace in performance. He or she embarks on a good working relationship, open communication, and attends to the individual needs of the employees. By so doing the leader is in a position to earn their trust thereby facilitating good performance. He or she uses charisma and a visual orientation to influence the subordinates in the achievement of set goals and objectives (Bass 1985). In addition, the leader applies motivational aspects to ensure that subordinates do not get demoralized. This theory is quite different from transactional theory which calls for good performance in order to get a reward in return.

Transformational theory affects change in the organization in that the people change their perceptions and traditions, expectations, and the way of doing things. It is an effective theory to use in the organization as it takes into consideration the bigger view of the stakeholders involved.

Servant leadership theory

This theory calls for the leader to be a servant of others in the first place. That is the leader should consider and think of others before his or herself. The leader should therefore have leadership qualities like being understanding, have the ability to listen to the subordinates and possession of problem-solving techniques (Kinicki & Kreitner 2006). This theory can be effective in organizations where the subordinates are willing to work and not to be pushed to perform their tasks. The danger of servant theory is in the sense that a servant does everything the master wants. Actually, a leader cannot do everything the subordinates want.

Environmental theory

In this leadership theory, the leader creates an environment that makes it appealing to perform given tasks. The leader embarks on instilling self-inspiration among the subordinates. That is the subordinates get an inner inspiration to achieve the set goals and objectives. The leader also educates the subordinates on how to accommodate each other‘s emotions in the running of the organization and thus promote teamwork. This is because each subordinate is able to withstand the other and can discuss any matter that arises among them. It is an effective theory as less time is wasted in solving employees’ crises as they can accommodate each other (Carmazzi 2005).


Leadership is a critical issue in organizations today. Many theories have been put down to explain leadership in organizations. It is thus important for organizations to embark on more research on leadership theories in order to get the right theories that would be applicable to these organizations to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. This is because most theories need empirical testing and advanced research work.

Reference List

Bass, B. M., 1985. Leadership and Performance. New York. Free Press.

Bono, J.E. & Ilies, R., 2006. Charisma, positive emotions and mood contagion. The Leadership Quarterly journal, 17(4), pp. 317-334.

Burns, J. M., 1978. Leadership. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc.
Carlyle, T., 1841.On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carmazzi, A.F., 2005.leadership and change management. Web.

Foti, R. J. & Hauenstein, N. M., 2007. Pattern and variable approaches in leadership emergence and effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), pp.347-355.

Hackman, J. R. & Wageman, R., 2005. A Theory of Team Coaching. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), pp. 269-287.

Hemphill, J.K., 1949. Situational Factors in Leadership. Columbus: Ohio State University Bureau of Educational Research.

House, R. J., 1996. Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly journal, 7 (3), pp.323–352.
Kinicki, A. & Kreitner, R., 2006.Organizational Behavior. Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Lewin, K., Lippitt, R. & White, R., (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 14(6), pp.271–301.

Locke E.A. & Shelley A. K., 1991. Leadership: do traits matter? Journal of Academy of Management Executive, 5(2), pp.60-78.

Miltenberger, R.G., 2004. Behavior Modification Principles and Procedures (3rd ed). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Wormer, V., Katherine, S., Besthorn, F. H. & Keefe, T., 2007. Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Macro Level: Groups, Communities, and Organizations. United States: Oxford University Press.

Yukl, G. A., 2006. Leadership in Organizations. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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