Theories of Leadership

Theories of Leadership in organisational behaviour

Table of Contents:-

  • Theories of Leadership in Organisational Behaviour
  • Trait Theories of Leadership
  • Behavioural Theories of Leadership
  • Situational/Contingency Theories
  • Transactional Theory of Leadership
  • Transformational Theory of Leadership

Theories of Leadership in Organisational Behaviour

To understand leadership as it is viewed and practised today, it is important to recognise that the concept of leadership has changed over time. Leadership is a complicated notion and several theories have been produced to explain it. Theories of Leadership in organisational behaviour typically have evolved as norms, attitudes and understanding in the larger world have changed. These theories have developed over the years and explore several different facets of leadership and leadership behaviour. In many ways, they complement each other, and together they help to gain a thorough understanding of what the process of leadership is about.

In influencing the people in the organization towards the goals of the organization, various approaches of organisational behaviour have been adopted by different sets of leaders. One model may not be suitable for different organizations with different sets of objectives. Moreover, such models or theories of leadership also depend on the qualities that a leader inherits or displays in managing their team. Some of the theories of leadership, ranging from conventional theories to contemporary theories, are given below, with the chief among them being the following:

Various theories of leadership in organisational behaviour are as follows:

  1. Trait Theories
  2. Behavioural Theories
  3. Situational/Contingency Theories
  4. Transactional Theory of Leadership
  5. Transformational Theory of Leadership

Theories of Leadership

Trait Theory of Leadership

Some leaders in history have always been identified as strong leaders based on the qualities or traits they display. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Narayana Murthy of Infosys, and Apple’s Co-founder Steve Jobs have been identified based on the traits they displayed. For example, when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, she was regularly described as a confident, iron-willed, determined, and decisive leader. The trait theories of leadership focus on the personal qualities and characteristics that distinguish leaders from non-leaders (Robbins, Judge, & Sanghi, 2007).

In the early stages, the underlying assumption of trait theory was that “leaders are born and not made.” This concept was widely recognized as the “Great Man Theory” of leadership. The Great Man Theory was originally proposed by Thomas Carlyle in 1849, and the assumption behind this theory is that “great leaders will arise when there is a great need.” The theory also assumes that a leader cannot be an ordinary person; they are distinct from the average individual in terms of personality traits such as intelligence, ambition and perseverance.

However, the proposition of the “Great Woman” finds no place, especially in leadership studies. This is mainly because gender issues were out of context when the theory was proposed. Moreover, it was only male members of society who were involved in such research, and such biasness was hardly realized by the people then.

In the 1960s, various research studies were conducted on the traits of a leader, and about 80 traits that a leader could display were identified. The trait theory assumes that leaders are born with inherited traits, and effective leaders possess the right combination of these traits. In 1974, Stogdill identified specific traits and skills essential for a leader, as follows:

Table: Traits and Skills

Traits Skills
Adaptable to situations Clever (Intelligent)
Alert to social environment Conceptually skilled
Alert to the social environment Creative
Assertive Diplomatic and tactful
Cooperative Fluent in speaking
Decisive Knowledgeable about group task
Ambitious and achievement-oriented Organised (administrative ability)
Dominant (desire to influence others Persuasive
Energetic (high activity level) Socially-skilled
Tolerant to stress  
Willing to assume responsibility  
Table: Traits and Skills

A comprehensive review of the leadership literature on traits reveals that one significant approach that was developed is the Big Five Personality Framework. Although various traits were identified by different studies, it is possible that such traits were somehow grouped or subsumed under the Big Five approach. Despite the complexity of the approach, it offers useful insights. Extraverted leaders (individuals who like being around people and can assert themselves), conscientious (individuals who are disciplined and keep commitments they make), and open (individuals who are creative and flexible) seem to have an advantage when it comes to leadership. This suggests that good leaders share key traits in common.

In recent years, another trait that has been identified with leadership is Emotional Intelligence (EI). Advocates of Emotional Intelligence (EI) argue that lacking it, a person may have exceptional training, a highly analytical mind, a compelling vision, and an abundance of terrific ideas, yet still fail to become a great leader. The general assumption is that empathetic leaders can sense others’ needs, listen to what followers say (and don’t say), and read the reactions of others.

Behavioural Theories

In the 1940s, alongside the research studies on traits displayed by leaders, research was also conducted on the behaviours exhibited by leaders. The first and foremost study on leadership was carried out by psychologist Kurt Lewin and his associates in 1939, identifying different leadership styles, namely autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire leadership. While the assumption behind trait theory is that “leaders are born, rather than made”, behavioural theory of leadership assumes that specific behavioural patterns of leaders can be acquired through learning and experience. The trait theory centres on understanding “what the leaders are,” whereas behavioural theories focus on elucidating “what the leaders do.”

Behavioural theories are as follows:

  1. Managerial grid,
  2. Likert’s four systems,
  3. Ohio State University studies, and
  4. Michigan studies.

Contingency/Situational Theories

Sometimes, the success of a leader does not depend solely on the qualities, traits, and behaviour of a leader. The context in which a leader exhibits their skills, traits, and behaviour matters because the same style of functioning may not be suitable for different situations. Thus, the effectiveness of leadership also depends on the situation. Several research studies, when analyzing the reasons for inconsistent results in differing conditions with the same leadership style, focused on situational variables. This theory views leadership as a dynamic interaction between several situational variables, such as the leader, the followers, the task situation, the environment, etc. Some of the noteworthy studies on situational contexts that gained wide recognition include Fiedler’s model, Hersey and Blanchard’s Contingency theory of leadership, Leader-Member Exchange theory, Path-Goal theory, and Leader-Participation model.

Contingency theories are:

  1. Fiedler Model
  2. Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory
  3. Leader-Member Exchange Theory
  4. Path-Goal Theory
  5. Leader-Participation Model

Transactional Theory of Leadership

The transactional theory of leadership was initially discussed by Max Weber in 1947 and later developed by Bernard M. Bass in 1981. Several assumptions underlie the transactional theory, as follows:

  • People perform at their best when the chain of command is clear and definite.
  • Workers are motivated by rewards and punishments.
  • The primary objective of the followers is to comply with the instructions and commands of the leader.
  • Careful monitoring of subordinates is necessary to ensure that expectations are met.

Under the transactional theory of leadership, leaders guide or motivate their followers toward established goals by clarifying role and task requirements. The characteristic features exhibited by transactional leaders include the following:

1. Contingent Reward

The leader links the goals of the organization to rewards, clearly specifies expectations, provides the needed resources, and sets SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals for the subordinates.

2. Management by Exception (Active)

The leader actively monitors the performance of the subordinates, observes and identifies deviations from rules and standards, and takes corrective actions to prevent mistakes.

3. Management by Exception (Passive)

In terms of passive management, a leader intervenes only if standards are not met and may even use punishments for poor performance.

4. Laissez-faire

In this form, the leader provides an environment for subordinates where they can make decisions. In this form, the leader himself abdicates responsibilities and avoids making decisions, which can result in a lack of direction for the followers.

This kind of leadership may not be suitable for all occasions and is more suitable where organizational problems are simple and clearly defined. Transactional leaders tend to be highly directive and action-oriented, and their relationship with followers tends to be transitory and not based on emotional bonds. Gender differences exist in adopting this style of leadership. Several studies found that when using the transactional leadership style, women were more likely to focus on the “rewards” component, while men emphasized the “punishment” component.

Transformational Theory of Leadership

Transformational leadership is also equated, to some extent, with charismatic leadership. To bring about a transformation in the interests and capabilities of followers or employees, one critical component considered essential is the charisma of the leader. In this form of leadership, a leader inspires followers to transcend their self-interests for the betterment of the organization. Transformational leaders pay attention to the developmental needs and concerns of followers, inspiring them to view old problems with a new outlook and motivating them toward achieving the organization’s goals by providing a fresh perspective.

According to Bass and Riggio, there are four dimensions to the transformational theory of leadership, namely Idealized Influence (II), Inspirational Motivation (IM), Intellectual Stimulation (IS), and Individualized Consideration (IC), which are as follows:

1. Idealized Influence (II)

In this form of leadership, leaders act as role models for their subordinates, exhibiting high morals and ethical standards. They provide vision and a sense of mission, instil pride among the followers, and gain respect and trust.

2. Inspirational Motivation (IM)

In this dimension of leadership, leaders inspire their subordinates in various ways, giving meaning to their work and introducing new challenges and enthusiasm. The leader articulates organizational purposes in simple terms to the followers and holds high expectations for them.

3. Intellectual Stimulation (IS)

In this form, leaders stimulate the intellectual ability of their followers. Through innovative approaches, leaders aim to stimulate the thinking of their subordinates, fostering creativity, intelligence, rationality, and problem-solving skills.

4. Individualized Consideration (IC)

Leaders, in this dimension, pay close attention to the individual development needs of subordinates to achieve success (Kuchynkova, 2013).

Research was also conducted on gender differences in transformational leadership, revealing that women were rated higher than men on most dimensions of transformational leadership, leading to higher outputs achieved by women using this leadership style.

Apart from the aforementioned modern theories of leadership, a wide array of studies has taken place on leadership in recent times, based on concepts such as spirituality, authenticity, chaos and complexity, relationality, ethical leadership, visionary leadership, transcendence, etc. All such analyses on leadership bring a new dimension to the study of leadership and are still in the process of evolving a solid theoretical construct.

The emerging theories attempt to accommodate new organizational structure characterized by more fluid, temporal arrangements, rapidly changing technologies, increased globalization, and changing workplace demography (Klenke, 2011). Some substitute theories of leadership posit that in such new forms of organization, the need for a single leadership is diminished. However, some studies also suggest that in new forms of organizational structure, the need for a leader is felt more due to the newness of the organisational structure, and followers tend to look at their leaders to make sense of unfamiliar organizational forms (Klenke, 2011).

Leadership Theories in The Context of Gender

Essentially, leadership in the context of gender is examined through two theoretical lenses: the Women-in-Management approach and the Doing Gender approach.

Women-in-Management Approach: The fundamental premise of the Women-in-Management approach is that “individual women make a difference,” thus concentrating on addressing the challenges faced by individual women leaders (Alvesson & Billing, 1997).

Doing Gender: Another approach that emerged during the early 1990s is the perspective popularly known as “doing gender,” conceptualized as a social dynamic rather than a role. This approach, “doing gender,” originated from the analysis of the underrepresentation of women on corporate boards, where men continued to dominate top management positions and held decision-making powers. The notion behind “doing gender” is engaging in actions within social processes, including practices of power that challenge the domination of men and the subordination of women (Klenke, 2011).

Contemporary Perspectives on Gender and Leadership

Some contemporary approaches to gender and leadership assert that feminine characteristics provide women with an advantage in today’s workplace, where more democratic and participatory leadership styles are preferred. Scholars argue that women leaders are participative and empowering consensus builders. Recent perspectives suggest that women’s approach to leadership is “interactive,” motivating followers to transform their self-interests into those of the group.


1. What are various leadership theories in organisational behaviour?

The various leadership theories in organisational behaviour include the Great Man Theory/Trait Theory, Behavioural Theories, Contingency/Situational Theories, Transactional Theory of Leadership and Transformational Theory of Leadership.

You May Also Like:-

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top