IM/IT Knowledge Management

Leadership – Past to Present

In the 21st century there are a plethora of leadership theories and models, each with their own set of unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Six models will be compared to show each leadership models in the context of a leadership spectrum that reaches from purely social behavior on one extreme to purely situational context on the other. Those theories are great-man theory, situational theory, contingency theory, exchange theory, open-systems theory, and transformational leadership. The end result will not be to show that any one theory is more correct than another, but rather to illustrate the evolutionary nature of leadership theory and its relevant application to the contemporary leadership environment.

Great Man Theory

Great man theory is an attempt to explain history by relating it to the impacts of great men, and women, of their times. The theory focuses on the synchronicity that is apparent between key historical events and the personalities of the men and women that were the pivotal point around which those events revolved. As Bass (1990) notes: “The Russian Revolution would have taken a different course if Nikolai Lenin had been hanged by the Old Regime instead of exiled” (p.37). The theory holds that in every age there are those superior few who will rise and give direction as a result of charisma, intellect, and inheritance, among others.

19th century philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle is commonly known to have commented, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Carlyle is accredited with having written and lectured extensively on the subject of heroes throughout history and is the person most commonly associated with great man theory. In his lecture, The Hero as King, Carlyle tells us:

Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. (1840).

Other researchers have looked at great man theory from other perspectives. Galton (1869) looked at great men from the perspective of hereditary after observing “how frequently ability seemed to go by descent” (p.27). Frederick Woods also looked at the connection between hereditary and royalty as part of his research. Henry (n.d.) summarizes Woods’ conclusions by stating “Royal geniuses are not scattered haphazard over the genealogical chart; they are concentrated in isolated chains of closely related individuals” (p.53). By extension, other researchers such as Wiggam (1931) looked at biological causes however it was Jennings in 1960 who wrote “The hero of the future will be that individual with the great mission to overcome (. . .) He will recognize that this struggle starts not with his community nor even his family but rather starts with himself” (as cited in StreetNews143, 2003).

While the model of great men provides a frame of reference to look backwards at the traits of key individuals, its success as a forward-looking model are limited. For example, if US society had known about the impending events of September 11th, 2001, would George W. Bush still have become president? There is no way to know. Hence one of the key drawbacks to great man theory as a predictive indicator of great leadership is that sometimes the defining events that prove whether one is a great leader or not occurs after one has achieved legitimate power.

Situational Theory

To address the challenges that situations have on leadership we have situational theory. Situational theory is at the other end of the extreme in stating that the situational factors, and only the situational factors, will determine who will lead. The theory focuses on the synchronicity that is apparent between key historical events and the “state of affairs” (Bass, 1990, p.38) that were the pivotal point around which those events revolved. As Bass notes: “The situationalists advance the view that the emergence of a great leader is a result of time, place and circumstance” (p.38). The theory holds that those who are chosen to lead cannot have done otherwise and give direction regardless of what other non-situational factors may exist.

The documentation for situational leadership goes well back into history. Plutarch (c. AD 46?- 120) who was an influential writer of Greek and Roman history provides many insights into states of affairs that drive situational leaders. Of the history of Numa Pompilius he writes:

Numa accepted and Lycurgus resigned a kingdom; Numa received without desiring it (. . . .) Thus much, meantime, was peculiarly signal and almost divine in the circumstances of Numa, that he was an alien, and yet courted to come and accept a kingdom, the frame of which though he entirely altered, yet he performed it by mere persuasion, and ruled a city that as yet had scarce become one city. (p. 125-130)

Bass (1990) refers to more current research. The works of Mumford, Hocking, Schneider, and Hook appear to represent the key foundational tenants that make up the core of situational theory. Mumford (1909) and Hook (1943) show that social conditions and their associated obstacles are the driving factors that determine which skill sets a leader needs to possess (p.37). Schneider (1937) seems to substantiate this by showing how the leader is more a catalyst for implementing solutions. While Hocking (1924) shows that for situational leaders to be effective, leadership must be given from the grassroots, not commanded from above.

Situational theory solves many problems inherent in the Great Man theory. It is more forward looking in that situational factors can be seen in advance and can account for why some leaders appear to be great after they have achieved a state of legitimate power. For task-oriented situations, situational theory can describe context and task objectives to adequately describe leadership. However the context is limiting and not all leadership situations are task oriented. Many situations are relationship oriented and situation theory fails to adequately address these shortcomings in the model.

Contingency Theory

While great-man and situational theory may be seen to be two extremes of leadership, contingency theory ties to bridge the gap between the two. Contingency theory looks at the effectiveness of leadership based on situational factors, however it does so by looking at both task-oriented and relations-oriented traits used in leadership decisions. The theory focuses on the measurement of successful leadership probability in a given situation through the use of the least preferred co-worker scale (LPC). Bass (1990) notes that contingency theory tends to “emphasize the need to place the person in the situation for which he or she is best suited” (p.47). The theory holds that the relations-oriented leader functions best during times of stability where as the task-oriented leader functions best at the extreme ends of favorable circumstances.

Contingency theory and the LPC scale of measurement is the brainchild of Fred Fiedler. Fiedler’s work has spanned more than 40 years beginning in the 1950’s. According to Dunham (1984), Fiedler feels the effectiveness of a leader “is determined by the degree of match between a dominant trait of the leader and the favorableness of the situation (….) The dominant trait is a personality factor causing the leader to be either relationship-oriented or task-orientated” (p.365). The implication being that personal ability is suited to specific types of tasks and that for leaders to be successful they must either match their personal traits to the task or adapt the tasks so as to fit their personality traits.

Most of the work in contingency theory has focused on how to measure the probability of leadership effectiveness. The LPC scale, which measures effectiveness based on a person’s leadership style compared to their least preferred co-worker, seems to have withstood various competitive models such as those developed by Shifflet in 1974 and Schriesheim, Tepper, & Tetrault in 1988 (Bass, 1990, p.508). “Overall these results supported the greater validity of Feidler’s contingency model than of the proposed alternatives” (Bass, p.509). In Fiedler’s model, 18 characteristics are compared based on the leaders description of their ideal co-worker and their actual least preferred co-worker. High LPC values indicated a relationship motivated style and low values a task-motivated style (Bass, p.495).

While contingency theory bridges some elements of the gap between great-man theory and situational theory, it is not without its problems. One of the key critiques centers around what exactly is being measured. Is the LPC scale in fact a true measure of leadership style or is it measuring something else? Other situational variables such as training and experience do not seem to be taken into account with the model (Antoine, n.d.). The theory assumes a one-sided relationship in terms of who is driving change within an organization, that being from the leadership side. Further, it seems to ignore important points of situation theory which imply that leadership is not always driven top down.

Exchange Theory

Exchange theory addresses some of the criticisms that are inherent of contingency theory but is more of a descendant of great-man theory due to its social connections. Exchange theory looks at the system of exchange inherent in social interactions and their effect on leadership. The theory focuses on the contributions and benefits to both leaders and followers of ‘the exchange’ and what costs are associated with it for both individuals and groups. Bass (1990) notes “leadership implies an equitable exchange relationship between the leader and the followers. When role obligations are mutually acknowledged, each party can satisfy the expectations of the other on an equitable basis” (p.48). The theory holds that for leaders to be successful the social benefits must out weight the costs.

The foundations of exchange theory have their roots in sociology with key aspects introduced from the fields of psychology, economics, and anthropology (Zafirovski, 2003, Introduction 1). Zafirovski notes:

The key tenet of social exchange theory is that human behavior is in essence an exchange (Homans, 1961: 12-3), particularly of rewards (Homans, 1961: 317) or resources of primarily material character (wealth) (Cook, 2000; Stolte et al., 2001) and secondarily of symbolic attributes. Presumably, such exchange transactions permeate all social phenomena (Coleman, 1990: 37), including group processes and intergroup relations, which are conceived as sets or joint outcomes of voluntary individual actions induced by rewards (Blau, 1964: 91). (Introduction, 1)

Or to put a bit more simply, leaders provide guidance, structure, and reward to the group in accomplishing a given task and the group in turn provides status and validation of the leadership position back to the leader. Power then is shared to such an extent that “leaders of more powerful followers are likely to be more powerful than leaders of less powerful followers” (Bass, 1990, p.226). This would therefore imply some type of feedback loop in which the power of a group becomes self-sustaining so long as the social benefits outweigh the effort required to maintain cohesion.

Exchange theory works well to explain social and economic life however the reverse is not always true. Zafirovski (2003) identifies that at the heart of the matter is the fact that social exchange theorist focus almost exclusively on the social interaction and not on defining exactly what exchange is (Conclusion 2). To put it another way, they are looking at the effect and not the cause.

Open-Systems Analysis

Enter Open-Systems Analysis. Open-systems analysis takes the analysis of social systems one step further by introducing cognitive and systems theory into leadership development. The theory focuses on a systems approach to leadership including the inputs, outputs, and flows based on social, organizational and environmental factors. Bass (1990) notes “in open systems, the effect of the outputs on the environment are feedback and new inputs. The relations within the system grow and become more intricate with repeated input-output cycles.” (p.50).

Foundational research into open-systems only seems to date back to about 1966 where Katz and Kahn and Bowers and Seashore where doing complimentary work on the systems theory of organizations. Lieberman used systems analysis to explain chain-induction groups. Jacobs and Jaques used systems theory to further develop bureaucratic leadership functions at the most senior levels. (Bass, 1990, p.51)

It is the Bass-Valenzi model however that provides the key tenets of open systems analysis and the limits of its reach.

Whether leaders are directive, negotiative, consultative, participative, or delegative depends on their perception of the systems’ s inputs and within-systems relations. The leader and his or her immediate work group form an open system of inputs (organizational, task, and work-group variables,), within-systems relations (power and information differentials), and outputs (productivity and satisfaction). (Bass, 1990, p.51)

The predictive nature of open systems seems to be borne out by Shapira using small space analysis. Shapira’s study tried to determine the type of leadership style used when faced with a choice of directive, consultative, negotiative, and delegative. Shapira showed that the leadership style with subordinates was predictive based on the power relationships between the two and knowledge of information that each possessed (Bass, 1990, p.259). The problem however is still in determining which factors of leadership determine the system’s preferred state and how this preferred state is to be reached. Open systems work well when all the necessary variables are defined correctly however its predictive nature when variables are missing can be called into question.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is an attempt to explain leadership by relating it to the multiplicity of research that came before it. The theory focuses on the ability of groups to take responsibility for transcending personal self-interest and to focus on the needs of the task at hand. As Bass (1990) notes: “Followers are converted into leaders. Among 90 transformational leaders, Bennis (1984) found evidence of competence to manage attention and meaning, to articulate visions of what was possible and to empower the collective effect of their leadership” (p.53). The theory holds that transformational leaders enhance the subordinates satisfaction and effectiveness through a combination of methods.

Early work done by Burns in the 1970’s and then by Bass in the 1980s led to a differentiation between transactional and transformational leadership. Group task objectives which require leaders to work within and established framework are considered transactional where as group task objectives that require change to the underlying framework are considered transformational (Bass, 1990, p.23). Where Bass and Burns tie transformational leadership to personal traits, other researchers such as Tichy and Devanna have shown the hybrid nature of the transformational model by tying it to other leadership models such as the open-systems framework. “It’s a leadership process that is systematic, consisting of purposeful and organized search for changes, systematic analysis, and the capacity to move resources from areas of lesser to greater productivity” (Bass, p. 53-54). Other researchers have tied these concepts in with other leadership theories including Hater and Bass to contingency theory, and Seltzer, Nemerof, and Bass whose four correlated dimensions of charisma, inspiration, intellect, and individualized consideration can be paralleled to ideas first proposed as part of great-man theory.

Methods and Measurements

The ability to rate each of these models ability to address contemporary leadership environments presents challenges that have nothing to do with the individual models discussed. The challenge, as noted by Avolio, Bass, and Jung (1999), is in the nature of the tools we have to measure effectiveness in the first place. Avolio notes “The challenge still remains how we can best measure such exemplary leadership styles beyond simply using survey tools, as well as to develop them over time in organizations” (Implications 4). Each type of leadership theory, be it situational, cognitive, interactive, social, or hybrid, presents its own unique set of tools for measurement.

This does not mean that the any of these models are invalid or that one model stands out above the rest. The defining factor will always be the point of view of the researcher or sponsor and what objectives they have in mind in terms of outcomes. For example, contingency theory may be the preferred method of addressing issues within a company that suffers from a poisoned work environment as it may provide points of view that would encourage personal transformation and transactional reorganization that are necessary to alleviate those types of conditions. Similarly open-systems analysis may be the preferred theory for a new business or industry that is dependent on feedback systems of input and output leading to dynamic growth. More established businesses, such as insurance companies, with long business cycles and established products lines might prefer to rely on influences brought about by great-man theory.

Convergence and Divergence

Convergence and divergence in leadership models is primarily a factor of evolution of management thought over time. As each new theory appears its similarities and differences will be predicated based upon what came before. Once new ideas are introduced, fields of specialization appear, some fields take new directions, and other ideas that cannot withstand the test of scrutiny disappear. As Wren (1994) so aptly put it:

The past must not be buried but used as a foundation and guide for the footprints that will be made in the future. (. . . .) new ideas, subtle shifts in themes, and emerging environmental events all bring new directions to evolving management thought. (p.427)

Looking at the 6 models discussed, some general trends of evolution become clear. The foremost being that each of these models is predicated on each of the models that came before it, although some more than others. Exchange theory is an extension of the social implication of great-man theory. Contingency theory was born out of the need for a more centralized view of great-man and situational theory. Open-Systems theory takes many of its epoch and philosophy from contingency theory and exchange theory. While these may be considered in some way divergent evolutionary paths from their root predecessors, transformational theory is a converging evolutionary path, bring back the best of contingency, exchange and open-systems thinking in more holistic approach to management.

While there are a number of permutations available to discuss similarities and differences between each of the models there are four key divisions that should stand out: Great-man and situational theory; contingency and exchange theory; open-systems and non-open systems; and transformational and transactional.

Great-man and situational theory, as mentioned previously, are at apparent opposite end of the spectrum. Where great-man theory references personal characteristics, intellect, inheritance, and questionably biology, situational theory focuses exclusively on the external situational factors. As such the two theories can be considered mutually exclusive. Their application however is not mutually exclusive. Great leaders such as John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill can be framed under both theories and come to perfectly valid conclusions of the nature of leadership. What they have in common is a relationship to the understandings of leadership with a historical context as each focuses a lens into the past to try to understand the future.

Contingency theory and exchange theory are both structural theories of leadership and each is just one step into the center of the spectrum from their most dominant predecessor. Both have elements of great-man and situational theory however for contingency theory the dominant influence is situational theory and for exchange theory the dominant influence is great-man theory. The two however are not as mutually exclusive as their forebears. Each is also characterized by a structural component to their outlook on leadership. The difference major difference is in the types of applications that each would be applied to. Whereas contingency theory is better suited to task-oriented leadership questions that have a small relationship component, exchange theory is better suited to social-oriented leadership questions that have a small task oriented component.

Open-Systems analysis is process-based theory of leadership and is most applicable to those theories that operate in the center of the spectrum. The key difference of open-systems compared with non-open theories is the ability to define parameters of volatility, such at that used for total quality management, and then redefine the system as required in terms of elimination of the error delta occurring in the model. This is difficult to do however in a strictly social or strictly situational based model, which is the key differentiator that separates out the application of this framework from others. Structure and organization are also key in determining which leadership situations to apply the model to.

Most, but not all, non-hybrid theories are generally considered to be transactional theories of leadership. This is due to the nature of the applications that these theories are applied to as being self-contained within an established structure or organization. Transformational leadership operates under no such conditions. The keys here are change to the underlying framework supporting the structure, be it physical or situational, and transcending social cultural norms in order to achieve task objectives. Wren (1994) properly summarizes the high level view of the transformational leader by saying:

Transformational leaders are often described as those who bring a vision of the major changes needed in the organization’s structure, culture, market or whatever. This distant vision will succeed, however, only if the leader can transform the high-powered vision of the future into localized implementation in the present. (p. 386-387)


In the history of leadership models in the 20th century, there is no such thing as the perfect model of leadership. Of the six models presented, it may seem that the more recent theories are more applicable to address contemporary leadership issues however each brings its own set of unique perspectives on situations, culture, structure, and process that need to be taken into account. In applying any leadership model to a given set of circumstances, it is important to understand the context, limitations, and biases introduced by each one so as to understand the limitations of the solutions they present as alternatives. It is also important to understand that measuring the effectiveness of each model may present unique challenges as new techniques for measuring the success are improved upon.

Kevin Feenan
Managing Director
Knomaze Corporation


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