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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