People are obsessed with leaders. People gossip about the boss; airport bookshops bulge with leadership books; current affairs analyzes the actions of leaders; and much of organizational science is about leadership. This is not surprising. Leaders have enormous influence over their followers—leaders make decisions for their followers and shape the course of their lives and even the type of people they are, and so followers are focused on how effective their leaders are; how they are elected, appointed, and deposed; and whether they lead for good or for evil.
Leadership is a process whereby an individual, or clique, is able to influence others to internalize a collective vision and mobilize them toward attaining that vision. Effective leadership transforms people’s goals and ambitions, even their identities, and replaces self-oriented behavior with group-oriented behavior. The exercise of power over people to force them, through rewards and punishments, to comply with commands and bend to one’s will is not leadership.
Personality Attributes of Great Leaders
Although leadership is a group process (leaders require followers), leadership research has a long history of focusing on attributes of leaders alone that make them effective—great leaders. The 19th-century belief that leaders are born rather than made is no longer in vogue—research has failed to find “great leader” genes. However, the idea that some people have personalities, however acquired, that predispose them to lead effectively in all situations, whereas others do not, has attracted enormous research attention. A definitive review published in 2002 concluded that three of the Big Five personality dimensions are associated with effective leadership: Extraversion, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness. Overall, however, personality does not allow people to differentiate between effective and ineffective leaders very reliably.
What Do Effective Leaders Do?
Maybe some leadership behaviors are more effective. One reliable distinction that has emerged is between a leadership style that pays more attention to the group task and getting things done (task-oriented leadership) and one that pays attention to relationships among group members (socioemotional leadership). Most groups require both types of leadership and people who are capable of being both task-focused and socio-emotionally focused tend to be the most effective.
Interactionist Perspectives on Leadership
However, different situations and different group activities call for different emphases on the task or on relationships—in which case, the relative effectiveness of task-oriented and relationship-oriented leaders may be contingent on properties of the leadership situation. This idea is reflected in Fred Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership, very popular in the 1970s; one strength of this theory was that Fielder had a novel way to measure both leadership styles (the least-preferred coworker scale) and classify how well structured situations were. Generally, relationship-oriented leadership was most effective unless the group task was very poorly structured or very well structured.
Another interactionist perspective is normative decision theory. Leaders can choose to make decisions autocratically (subordinate input is not sought), consultatively (subordinate input is sought, but the leader retains authority to make the final decision), or as a genuine group decision (leader and subordinates are equal partners in shared decision making). The relative efficacy of these strategies is contingent on the quality of leader-subordinate relationships and on task clarity and structure. Autocratic leadership is fast and effective if leader-subordinate relationships are good and the task is well structured. When the task is less clear, consultative leadership is best, and when leader-subordinate relations are poor, group decision making is best.
A third interactionist theory is path-goal theory, which assumes that a leader’s main function is to motivate followers by clarifying the paths that will help them attain their goals. Leaders do this by directing task-related activities (structuring) or by addressing followers’ personal and emotional needs (consideration). Structuring is most effective when followers are unclear about their goals and how to reach them, and consideration is most effective when the task is boring or uncomfortable.
Another way to look at leadership is as a transaction between leaders and followers—the leader does something benefiting followers, and followers in turn allow the leader to lead. Eric Hollander coined the term idiosyncrasy credit to describe a transaction in which leaders who initially conform to group norms and therefore serve the group well are subsequently rewarded by the group by being allowed to be idiosyncratic and innovative—key features of effective leadership.
One key transactional leadership theory is leader-member exchange (LMX) theory. Because leaders have to relate to many subordinates, they differentiate among them and develop different LMX relationships with different subordinates—the quality of these relationships range from those based on mutual trust, respect, and obligation (high-quality LMX relationships), to those mechanically based on the formal employment contract between leader and subordinate (low-quality relationships). Effective leadership rests on the development of high-quality LMX relationships with as many subordinates as possible—these relationships motivate followers and bind them to the group.
Transformational Leadership and Charisma
Leaders typically are innovative and able to mobilize followers to buy and implement their new vision for the group—they are transformational. Transformational leadership is characterized by (a) careful attention to followers’ needs, abilities, and aspirations, (b) challenging followers’ basic thinking, assumptions, and practices, and (c) exercise of charisma and inspiration. Charisma is central for transformational leadership (there is much talk about charismatic or visionary leaders and leadership), which has engaged a debate among scholars (a) about whether this is a return to older personality perspectives on leadership, and (b) about how one can distinguish between charisma in the service of evil (Slobodan Milosevic) and charisma in the service of good (Nelson Mandela).
Stereotypes of Leadership
According to leader categorization theory, people have stereotypical expectations (schemas) about the attributes an effective leader should have in general, or in specific leadership situations. Once a person categorizes someone as a leader, the person automatically engages the relevant leadership schema—the better the match is between the leader’s actual characteristics and the leadership schema, the more favorable are the person’s evaluations of the leader and his or her leadership.
Stereotypical expectations might affect leadership in two other ways. According to status characteristics theory, in a task-oriented group, a person’s evaluations of effective leadership rest on whether he or she believes the leader has the attributes to perform the group task, called specific status characteristics, and whether the leader is a member of a high-status group in society and therefore possesses attributes that are valued in society, called diffuse status characteristics.
Role congruity theory focuses on gender and leadership. The argument is that stereotypes of women typically do not match well with schemas of effective leadership, and thus in many leadership situations, women find it difficult to be endorsed as effective leaders. There is an incongruity between the attributes of the leadership role and the stereotypical attributes of women.
Social Identity and Leadership
According to the social identity theory of leadership, a key function of leadership is to forge, transform, and consolidate one’s identity as a group member—one’s social identity. The implication of this is that if membership in a group is important to a person, particularly to his or her sense of self, the person is more likely to be influenced by a leader who matches his or her understanding of what the group stands for (a leader who is prototypical of the group) than by one who does not. Effective leadership in such groups rests significantly on being perceived by one’s followers as being prototypical, even to the extent that general attributes of good leadership decline in importance. One reason why leaders who are prototypical members of subjectively important groups can be effective is that followers believe that because their identity and that of the group are closely matched, the leaders treat members fairly and must be acting in the best interest of the group, so they are therefore trusted and allowed to be innovative.
- Goethals, G. R., Sorenson, G. J., & Burns, J. M. (Eds.). (2004). Encyclopedia of leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hogg, M. A. (2007). Social psychology of leadership. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: A handbook of basic principles (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in organizations (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.