Trait and Situational Leadership and Contingency Theory


Organizations cannot run without effective force of leadership. A leader is a person who plans, controls, directs, and/or guides other people towards attaining of a common mutual objective or goal. Leadership has two main components: organizational and personal elements. According to Higgs (2003, p. 275), leaders succeed in their function if they demonstrate commitment together with knowledge of their organizations. Several leadership theories including participatory, situational, contingency and transformational leadership hypotheses contend that leaders serve the principal functions of directing and guiding the behavior of various people who must work together in teamwork in the working environment. Peretomode (2012, p. 23) supports this contention by further claiming that leaders help their followers to achieve their organizational functions. In the effort to avail information on various ways of accomplishing these tasks of leadership, this paper analyses, compares and then contrasts the trait leadership theory, situational leadership hypothesis, and contingency theory. Effort is also made to discuss the assumptions underpinning these theories together with the evidence that supports them and their appropriateness for my workplace or any other workplace.

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Analysis of the Theories of Leadership

Trait Leadership Theory

Within the discipline of social science, leadership emerges as one of the topics that are widely debated by many scholars. Theoretical constructs in leadership studies initiated by researching certain inheritable attributes so that it becomes possible to differentiate people who can lead and those who cannot lead (Mumford, Campion & Morgeson 2007, p. 164). This approach to leadership study marked the birth of the trait leadership theory. Through this theory, several skills, personality characteristics, and demographic characteristics descriptive and predictive of effective leaders have been developed (Mumford, Campion & Morgeson 2007, p. 166). For instance, trait theories of leadership identify personality characteristics such as courage, extraversion, and self-confidence among others as important characteristics that may predict one’s effectiveness in leadership.

Central to the development of the trait leadership theory is the need to provide a classification of leadership traits. According to Hoffman et al. (2011, p. 348), leadership traits are classified according to population characteristics, proficiency in tasks, interpersonal qualities, proximal, and distal aspects. From the context of demographic classification, research on leadership contends that both women and men can make effective leaders. This suggests that the effectiveness of leadership is not a function of gender differences. Competence implies the ability to execute and perform in leadership tasks. Hoffman et al. (2011, p. 354) argue that conscientiousness, individual stability, emotional wellbeing, and experience together with the ability to approach various situations with open-mindedness are essential traits that define leadership competence. The capacity of a leader to address issues related to the socialization of people is classified under the interpersonal traits. Other traits fitting into this group of traits are agreeableness together with extraversion (Hoffman et al. 2011, p. 361).

Classification of leadership traits from the paradigm of proximal versus distal is an effort to break down the question of whether leaders can be made or are naturally created. The proximal paradigm argues that traits, which define effective leadership, are not principally stable in the entire life of people. The suggestion here is that such traits can be developed through training and development. An investigation by Hoffman et al. (2011, p. 365) reveals that, from the distal paradigm, charisma, dominance, motivation, and creativity are in direct relationship with effective leadership. The scholars also identify the possession of managerial skills, the ability to solve problems, interpersonal skills, and the ability to make decisions as critical traits that define effective leaders.

Applicability of trait leadership theories in my organization

Although trait theories identify qualities that define people capability to lead with precision, their application in my organization or any other organization is problematic. This position is supported by evidence on criticisms by various scholars such as Ng et al. (2008, p. 733) claiming that the theories suffer from reliability and validity since not all people possessing qualities of effective leadership identified by the theories make great leaders. This criticism poses an interrogative on the evidence of the capacity of the theories to provide a reliable explanation for leadership. Indeed, according to Ng et al. (2008, p. 737), many people who possess personality traits according to trait theories do not necessarily depict the essential traits for great leaders. Some of such people do not also seek leadership positions in an organization (Ng et al. (2008, p. 737). Amid this criticism, in organizational settings, it is crucial to identify people who can and those who cannot make effective leaders while developing succession plans.

Effectiveness in leadership defines the influence possessed by a leader on work teams and individuals within an organization in the effort to attract and maintain followership (Mumford, Campion & Morgeson 2007, p. 162). Since not all people can influence others, some leadership scholars contend that leadership traits are unique only to certain people possessing immutable characteristics, which are impossible to develop. However, as scholarly studies on the impacts of personality traits on the effectiveness of leadership continue to advance, this position is immensely disputed. In the light of these disputes, it is significant to appreciate the validity of the scholarly findings that not all people make effective leaders akin to the differences in personality traits (Mumford, Campion & Morgeson 2007, p. 164).

Assumption underpinning trait leadership theories

The main assumption of trait theories is that certain personality characteristics, which also predict one’s ability to lead, can be inherited as Mumford, Campion, and Morgeson (2007, p. 165) confirm. This implies that, in the succession plans for organizations, effort needs to be made to identify potential effective leaders based on people’s personality and behavioral traits.

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Situational Leadership Theories

Situational leadership theories claim that leaders determine the most appropriate mechanisms of conducting leadership roles depending on the variables characterizing any situation within an organization. Particular scenarios requiring the making of decisions call for different forms of leadership styles. For instance, when leaders possess high experience and high knowledge of the most effective ways of driving organizational success, an authoritarian leadership style is the most preferred (Higgs 2003, 278). Conversely, where the employees or subjects possess high skill levels in their areas of specializations, deployment of the democratic form of leadership is the most appropriate in the effort to drive organizational success.

Applicability of situational leadership theories in my organization

Evidence on the applicability of situational leadership theories in my organization or any other organization is rested on the platforms of changing leadership styles to suit the changing organizational dynamics. For instance, addressing the issue of situational dynamics, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard argue that there exists no single style of leadership, which would fit all situations since leadership is essentially grounded on the relevance of tasks requiring leadership (Pearce & Conger 2003, p. 34). Hence, successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership styles and grow them to maturity depending on the situation under which they execute their functions.

Assumption underpinning situational leadership theories

Pearce and Conger (2003, p. 45) point out the central assumption in the advancement of situational leadership theories that leaders are flexible and can change their leadership styles to suit situational dynamics. Thus, leaders possess a spectrum of leadership traits that can be altered to suit any particular situation.

Contingency Theory

Contingency leadership theories dwell on specific factors defining an environment, which help in the determination of the required leadership style. According to Peretomode (2012, p. 21), examples of contingency theories of leadership include the theory of effective leadership advanced by Fielder, strategic contingency theory, and cognitive resource theory. For instance, according to Fielder’s contingency theory, leadership style, which yields exemplary results in one environment, does not necessarily work in another. Fielder’s theory considers various facets, which determine the capacity of a leader to take control of a given situation. These facets include task control, the capacity to enhance members’ relations, and the capacity to possess positioning power. Furthermore, according to this theory, leaders can be broadly classified according to whether they are task or relationship-oriented. Task-oriented leaders perform better in work environments that are characterized by well-structured surroundings, good relationships between members and leaders, and work settings where a leader has a strong or even weak power of positioning decisions.

Applicability of situational leadership theories in my organization or any other organization

In my organization or any other organization, the best leadership style is the one, which establishes a good fit with the environmental situation (Pearce & Conger 2003, p. 46). Based on evidence in the contingency leadership theories, no specific leadership style works best under all circumstances (Hoffman et al. 2011, p. 367). Consequently, the success of any particular style is a function of various variables among them being the traits of the followers together with the characteristics of any particular situation, which demands a given type of leadership style (Pearce & Conger 2003, p. 67). This evidence renders the theory highly applicable in my organization or any other organization since, as organizations develop, situations dictating the kind of leadership styles to be adopted keep on changing.

Assumption underpinning contingency leadership theories

The chief assumption of contingency theory is that leadership styles are inflexible. This means that it is impossible to develop a leader to adopt any particular style of leadership. Pearce and Conger (2003, p. 78) confirm that leaders cannot shift from one leadership style to another depending on the situation as situational leadership theories claim. The inflexibility of leadership styles possessed by people as advanced by contingency theories of leadership in organizational settings implies that a leader is selected based on the analysis of the situation in which he or she will be required to lead.

Comparing and Contrasting Leadership Theories

Considering the criticisms of trait theories of leadership, many leadership scholars dismiss them as reliable ways of theorization of leadership in organizations. For instance, Ng et al. (2008, p. 739) argue that situational and contingency models for leadership are more preferred than traits theories of leadership. However, challenges are evident in the discussion of contingency and situational theories in the context of their applicability in organizational leadership because of the problems associated with inadequate and clear differentiation between the two leadership theoretical constructs. Literature in organizational leadership has been encountering the challenges of utilization of the two terms interchangeably. However, this problem is not contributed by inadequate knowledge in the applicability of the contingency and situational theory in an organization. Rather, the set of theories shares common characteristics, although they are different in some ways.

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Considering situational, contingency, and situational theories of leadership, several similarities can be identified. One of the similarities is that these theories support the concept of followership in influencing organizational leadership. Several components of leadership, as advanced by situational, contingency, and situational theories and followership theoretical approaches may ensure successful leadership development within an organization. From the perspective of followership and the three leadership theories, an organization’s leadership entails good interaction between leaders and employees. In such contexts, the development of effective leadership requires the possession of good interpersonal skills and personality traits. Followers require open-minded leaders together with leaders who are confident and willing to take charge of the repercussions of their actions. According to Pearce and Conger (2003, p. 38), followers respond to team orientation together with leadership strategies, which enhance respect for followers’ accumulated work experience. This finding reveals the importance of situational and contingency theories in influencing how followers respond to various leadership styles.

Various contingency and situational theories have common characteristics. The two categories of leadership theories are based on the necessary behavior that should be adopted by effective leaders. Thus, they portray the characteristics of behavioral models for leadership. The theories agree that organizations do not have at their disposal the surest and single most important way of ensuring that people are led successfully. This agreement is founded on the argument that effective styles of leadership vary in terms of applicability within an organization depending on the existing situation. While some styles are effective in some situations, they fail miserably in others (Peretomode 2012, p. 36). Hence, upon a change of organizational dynamics, successful leaders may become unsuccessful if they do not change accordingly to adopt different leadership styles that match the new situation. While situational leadership theories suggest that leaders are flexible and capable of adopting such changes, contingency theories differ with this line of argument.

In contrast, situational theories set a precondition for the appropriate behavior that a leader should develop considering the specific conduct showcased by their followers while contingency theories consider a broad-based theoretical perspective in the discussion of organizational leadership styles. According to Schaubroeck, Lam, and Cha (2007, p. 1023), this perspective is rested on the platforms of the variables of a given situation and leadership skills appropriate for a given situation. This differentiation agrees with Peretomode’s (2012, p. 43) approach of differentiation of contingency theories from the situational theories. According to Peretomode (2012, p. 52), rigidity versus flexibility of leadership styles is the main difference between contingency and situational leadership theories. Situational theories hold that effective leaders are flexible enough so that they can change their continuum of leadership styles back and forth in such a manner that they can handle all organizational situations.

Success in leadership is dependent on the ability of a situational leader to identify the levels where followers are on the continuum of development and then appropriately altering leadership styles to suit their needs. This approach to leadership establishes a major drawback. Assuming that leaders are flexible enough, no specific time frame is set when a leader needs to change from one continuum to another, for instance, when changing from dictatorship or authoritative styles of leadership to democratic and participatory style of leadership. From this line of argument, contingency theories differ from situational leadership theories in that they claim that a leader cannot alter his or her leadership style to meet changes in the situation. For instance, a leader cannot change from dictatorship to democratic styles of leadership. Consequently, organizations should select leaders upon analysis of their situations to determine the leadership styles required to fit specific situations.


Leadership is an important component of an organization. It functions to inspire followers to work collectively to achieve specific goals within an organization. Leaders should possess the capacity to influence other people to achieve the set goals, aims, and objectives. Cognition of this requirement leads to the emergence of trait theories of leadership. These theories are aimed at determining the appropriate combinations of personality traits, which define an effective leader. As argued in the paper, this group of theories has been criticized by scholars for lack of validity and reliability since not all people possessing traits claimed as appropriate for leadership are interested in leadership or can lead effectively. Consequently, contingency and situational theories were considered in the paper as alternative theoretical constructs for explaining organizational leadership. Leadership is an organizational practice that not only influences followers (employees) but also leaders in a manner that ensures that organizational objectives are achieved through change.


Higgs, M 2003, ‘Developments in leadership thinking’, Leadership and Organisational Development Journal, vol. 24 no.5, pp. 273-284.

Hoffman, J, Woehr, D, Maldagen-Youngjohn, R & Lyons, B 2011, ‘Great man or great myth? A quantitative review of the relationship between individual differences and leader effectiveness’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol. 84 no. 2, pp. 347-381.

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Mumford, V, Campion, A & Morgeson, P 2007, ‘The leadership skills strataplex: Leadership skill requirements across organisational levels’, Leadership Quarterly, vol. 18 no. 7, pp. 154–166.

Ng, K, Ang, S & Chan, K 2008, ‘Personality and leader effectiveness: A moderated mediation model of leadership self-efficacy, job demands, and job autonomy’, Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93 no. 4, pp. 733-743.

Pearce, C & Conger, J 2003, Shared leadership: Reframing the hows and whys of leadership (2nd ed.), Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Peretomode, V 2012, Theories of management: Implications for educational administration (1st ed.), Justice Jeco Publishing Global, Benin City.

Schaubroeck, J, Lam, S & Cha, E 2007, ‘Embracing transformational leadership: Team values and the impact of leader behaviour on team performance’, Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 92 no. 4, pp. 1020-1030.

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