January 03, 2009

Trait theory and Behavioural theory of leadership

I spent some time today reading about leadership theories and find that the subject to be really facinating to study. During the in module work, we touched on some leadership theories but never really got into the details. Talking with Paul today suggest he deliberately leave this part out of the in module work for the PMA. I think Paul made a good call on this. As he said, it would probably be very boring to listen to a lecture on different school of leadership thinking. Reading about it in our own time allow us to think about it in more depth and relate theories to our experience.

Today I did only two theories on trait theory and behaviour theory. They are probably the first two ideas to be studied in leadership research and are probably the easiest to understand given that they are the basis for the leader "'made/born" debate.

Trait theory

When first talking about leadership, we're usually talking about the trait theory, although we often do not think about it in these terms. It's main idea is that leaders have certain traits that makes them leaders. For example Churchill is a 'persistent' leader when fighting against the Nazis or Mandela is 'visionary' leader about the black civil rights. So the raitionale goes that leadership can be identified or even defined if individuals exhibits these so called leadership traits. However, the problem is after extensive research by Stogdill in 1948, he reached the conclusion that there is no single set of universal traits that is predictative of leadership (cited in Northouse 2004). In another word, we couldnt possibly predict if anyone is going to grow up to become a leader by testing if he has got all the leadership traits (presumably through psychological assessment) because there is nothing to benchmark him against. The second important conclusion is that leadership arise from a need for it (situation) and it invovles interaction with other people. All these suggests trait theory cannot be the only way to study leadership. Fortunately, after a period where it was almost discarded , recent research have shown traits theory is important for understanding effective leadership (Northhouse 2004). There are still a set of traits that are consistently found in leaders such as intelligence, determination, integrity, sociability, and self confidence (Northouse 2004). Nevertheless, when we think about leadership in more depth, we would realise when we think about leadership we think about things such as what leaders do, what they say, how they influence people and these are the behavioural things that have little association with individual traits. Not surprisingly, one major limit of trait theory is that it is impossible to see how traits such as intelligence and determination can bring about influence in other people's motivation and performance (Maurik 2001).

Behavioural theory

Logically, behavioural theory complements the flaws in trait theory because putting together what leader are naturally and what they do seem to pretty much encompass every dimensions of leadership. One important appeal of behavioural theory is that if we know what leaders do, then it is possible to teach people leadership. So in theory everyone is capable of become a leader if they learn leadership properly. Now, to discuss about what leaders do is quite a dauting task. Most of the books and journals we read on organisational learning, effective management which talks about listening, empowering, and inspiring people are on this subject. They are all by in large styllistically prescriptive while ignoring the situational aspect of leadership (Maurik 2001). the leadership style that works in one situation may not work at all in another situation. Churchill's great leadership during WWII didnt carry his premiership afloat after the war ended (Maurik 2001). However, despite being limited in this way, behavioural theory can still shed light on how we understand leadership. If you wish to read up more about it, there are two seminal research studies on this subject (Bake and Mouton 1964; Tannenbaum and Schmidt 1958 cited in Maurik 2001). One is by Bake and Mouton in 1964 who defined leadership behaviours in task-relationship oriented dichotomy (cited in Maurik 2001). This is looking at management approaches which are "focused on finishing assigned tasks with little concern for follower's human needs" on the one hand (Task) and "creating a friendly atmosphere of work but fail to deliver on output" on the other (Relationship). Their key findings are that the task/relationship oriented leadership in practice is not a case of either/or scenario. In fact, effective leaders utilise both approaches by fitting to the management needs of given people situation (cited in Maurik 2001). What I find interesting about this is the 'middle of the road' approach which invovles a 'balanced need for task accomplishment and maintaining healthy relationships' style of leadership is depite being "politically expedient" (Maurik 2001 pp12) (in another word makes everyone happy) but is unlikely to initiate changes in the status quo (Maurik 2001).

Maurik, J. v. (2001). Writers on Leadership. London: Penguin.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). London: Sage.


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