Situational and Contingency Approaches in Sport Leadership

Shortly  after  World  War  II,  Ralph  Stogdill  published a highly influential review paper in which he concluded  that  effective  leadership  is  not  derived through  the  expression  of  some  set  of  personality  traits  but  is  invariably  dependent  on  a  range of  situational  factors  that  include  the  context  in which leaders find themselves, as well as the alignment  of  various  personal  characteristics  of  the leader  with  the  qualities,  activities,  and  goals  of those being led. In essence, Stogdill suggested that effective leadership occurs as a result of the interaction that takes place between a person and his or her environment.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Over  the  next  three  decades  (1950s  to  1970s),  a number  of  theoretical  frameworks  emerged  that sought to examine the various situational characteristics upon which effective leadership is contingent.  Perhaps  the  most  widely  studied  situational or  contingency  model  of  leadership  corresponds to  Fred  Fiedler’s  contingency  model.  Although the  majority  of  research  that  tested  this  model was  conducted  within  organizational  units,  it  is noteworthy that his foundational work in this area was conducted with high school basketball teams. According  to  Fiedler,  leadership  effectiveness  is contingent upon both the leader’s preferred style of interacting with others and the favorableness of the situation  (also  referred  to  as  situational  control). Fiedler  suggested  that  leaders  are  typically  either task  oriented  or  relationship  oriented,  with  task-oriented leaders primarily interested in maximizing goal or performance attainment among followers, whereas  relationship-oriented  leaders  are  primarily concerned with maximizing interpersonal connections  with  followers.  Fiedler  further  theorized that the effectiveness of the leader’s personal style (i.e.,  task vs.  relationship-oriented)  is  dependent on  three  situational  dimensions  that  include  the quality of leader–member relationships, the clarity and structure of the task and goals being pursued, as well as the extent to which the leader possesses formal  authority  and  power.  When  each  of  these is  maximized,  the  situation  is  described  as  being most favorable—or in other words the leader has the greatest amount of situational control.

The core tenet of Fiedler’s model is that under conditions of high and low situational control (or favorableness), a task-oriented leader is preferable; however, under conditions of moderate situationalcontrol, a relationship-oriented leader is theorizedto  be  most  effective.  Specifically,  Fiedler  contended that a more direct, task-oriented approach is  beneficial  when  members  have  complete  clarity  in  terms  of  what  is  expected  and  the  leader has  established  authority  as  well  as  support  (i.e., high-quality  relationships)  from  those  being  led. Conversely, when teams or organizations are beset with instability and volatility (i.e., low situational control), Fiedler suggested that a highly structured and  task-oriented  approach  would  also  be  most appropriate to instill order out of chaos. However, within  teams  or  organizations  beset  by  moderate situational  control  (e.g.,  involving  some  goal  or task  uncertainty  or  diminished  power  available to the leader), Fiedler suggested that a leader who can adeptly manage the interpersonal relationships among  group  members  would  be  most  likely  to evoke better individual performances, rather than a  leader  who  takes  a  more  authoritative  task-driven approach.

Although  meta-analytic  evidence  has  provided some support for Fiedler’s model within organizational settings, research in this area has also been the  target  of  considerable  debate  and  criticismon  both  conceptual  and  methodological  grounds. One  of  the  most  vociferous  concerns  that  has been  leveled  at  work  in  this  area  corresponds  to the  assessment  of  leadership  styles  in  these  studies.  Specifically,  Fielder’s  contingency  model  was operationalized  by  measuring  a  leader’s  interpersonal  style  via  an  indirect  projective  assessment. Specifically,  the  least  preferred  coworker  (LPC) scale involves the appraisal, by the focal leader, of another  person  (i.e.,  his  or  her  LPC)  to  make  an inference about whether the leader’s interpersonal style is task or relationship-oriented. In sum, the very  nature  of  what  a  LPC  score  actually  represents  has  been  markedly  questioned,  and  with  it the  validity  of  the  model  itself.  In  the  context  of sport, other than Fiedler’s early work with youth basketball teams, only a few studies have directly sought to test the theoretical tenets of this model, and  these  have  generally  demonstrated  inconclusive and mixed results. For example, in one study by  Anne  Marie  Bird,  members  of  winning  (i.e., theorized to reflect high situational favorableness) Division  II  U.S.  university  volleyball  teams  perceived their coaches to be more task-oriented, and losing  (i.e.,  low  situational  favorableness)  teams perceived  their  coaches  to  be  more  socioemotional. However, the opposite effect was found for Division I volleyball players, where winning teams perceived  their  coaches  to  be  more  socio-emotional, and losing teams perceived their coaches to be more task-oriented.

House’s Path–Goal Theory

Another  prominent  situational  and  contingency model of leadership corresponds to Robert House’s path–goal theory. However, unlike Fiedler’s model, which  focused  on  the  effectiveness  of  personality  factors  that  were  contingent  on  the  situation, House’s model focused on the effectiveness of various  leadership  behaviors  that  were  contingent  on various  situational  constraints.  Specifically,  the extent  to  which  leaders  engage  in  four  types  of leadership behavior (directive path–goal clarifying behavior,  supportive  behavior,  participative  leader behavior, and achievement oriented behavior) was theorized  to  translate  into  effective  leadership  (as indicated by improved affective states, motivation, and performance among followers) but that these leadership  behavior–subordinate  outcomes  were theorized to be dependent on various task-related situational constraints (e.g., clarity or ambiguity of task  demands)  as  well  as  the  attributes  and  characteristics  of  those  being  led  (i.e.,  team  member’s preferences for independence). For example, path– goal clarifying behavior utilized by leaders was theorized  to  be  particularly  effective  when  followers experience role ambiguity but was expected to be a relatively redundant form of leadership behavior when followers are clear about their role responsibilities and task demands.

Chelladurai’s Multidmensional Model of Leadership

Although research that directly sought to test the tenets of House’s path–goal theory in sport settings is somewhat limited, early work by Packianathan Chelladurai  and  his  colleagues  found  that  different  coaching  behaviors  are  preferred  in  different sport contexts (e.g., closed vs. open sport) by athletes  with  different  characteristics  (e.g.,  males  vs. females).  Interestingly,  Chelladurai  built  upon  his initial tests of the path–goal model to develop his multidimensional  model  of  leadership  (MML). Specifically,  the  MML  recognized  that  leadership effectiveness is contingent upon both the behaviors displayed by the leader and the preferences of the athletes being coached as well as the demands of the situation. Parenthetically, in addition to drawing  from  House’s  path–goal  theory,  Chelladurai also  drew  from  elements  of  Fiedler’s  contingency model   in   developing   his   MML.   Specifically, Chelladurai recognized that the behaviors utilized by  coaches,  and  the  effectiveness  of  these  behaviors  are,  to  some  extent,  shaped  by  the  interaction  of  the  coach’s  personal  characteristics  (e.g., personality  traits)  with  the  situational  context  in which the coach operates. In sum, the contingency and  path–goal  approaches  developed  by  Fiedler and  House,  respectively,  provided  an  important basis  for  Chelladurai’s  model,  which  to  date  has been  one  of  the  most  extensively  used  models  of leadership in sport.

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory

The   final   contingency   model   described   here corresponds  to  Paul  Hersey  and  Ken  Blanchard’s situational  leadership  theory  (also  referred  to  as a  life  cycle  theory).  The  core  tenet  of  this  theory is that the effectiveness of task and relationship oriented  leadership  behaviors  is  contingent  upon the  relative  maturity  levels  of  those  being  led.

According  to  Hersey  and  Blanchard,  the  extent to  which  task-oriented  behaviors  should  be  used decreases  as  the  maturity  of  followers  increase. Additionally,  the  degree  to  which  relationship oriented   behaviors   should   be   used   forms   an inverted U pattern, whereby at low and high maturity  levels  relationship-oriented  behaviors  should be  used  minimally,  while  at  moderate  levels  of maturity  they  should  be  used  more  frequently.  In workplace  settings,  empirical  support  for  the  life cycle theory has been mixed. In sport settings, the findings  have  been  inconclusive  at  best  and  on  a few  occasions  have  been  directly  contrary  to  the theoretical  postulates  of  this  framework.  For  this reason,  the  life  cycle  theory  has  not  generated much traction within the field of sport psychology (SP),  although  researchers  and  practitioners  have generally  recognized  that  coaches  should  adapt their coaching behaviors to the developmental levels (vis-à-vis maturity) of their athletes.


When taken together, the contingency approaches to  leadership  that  have  been  developed  over  the past 60 years have provided an invaluable basis for recognizing  that  the  utility  of  various  leadership behaviors  in  sport  is  dependent,  to  some  extent, on  the  situation  in  which  leaders  (i.e.,  coaches and  captains)  and  followers  find  themselves  (i.e.,a  person  x  situation  interaction).  Collectively, these frameworks have also played a major role in informing more recent (and sport-specific) models of leadership such as Chelladurai’s MML.


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