Research on leadership

The primary emphasis of early research on leadership was psychological in nature and focused on the traits or personality characteristics typically found among successful leaders. Such researchers began a long task of “laundry listing” all conceivable personal characteristics of so called “great” leaders. Such complications included the following kinds of characteristics:

Age extroversion
Maturity verbal skills
Intelligence prestige
Physical bearing attractiveness
Height charisma
Education popularity
Decisiveness aggressiveness

The problem with three early efforts was that they left too many questions about leadership unanswered. For example, is there any optimal combination of trait that is most critical in determining one’s success as a leader? In what ways do such characteristics that one can learn, or must one be born with them? Although such qualities might have fit popular stereotypes characterizing popular leaders or great personalities, their citation did little to expand our knowledge about the process of leadership.

It was not until a sociological view of the problem was combined with the psychological approach that headway was made in understanding leadership. Characteristics of these efforts were work carried out by researchers at Ohio State University in the 1950s. They recognized that leadership involves an interpersonal relationship between in this relationship is the behavior of the leader toward the subordinates.

This realization led them to focus their research efforts on the set of behaviors or actions that constituted leader behavior. Their basic approach was to isolate and measure the dimensions underlying leader behavior that could be used to define leadership; it was an empirical approach. A questionnaire was designed, with over 100 specific kinds of acts or behaviors a manager might engage in while supervising the work of others. The leader’s subordinates were asked to use the questionnaire to describe the leader’s behavior. The following is an illustration of the kinds of questions contained in the instrument that has come to be known as the leader behavior description questionnaire.

The subordinate indicates the degree to which each of the following statements describes the actions of the supervisors:

Refuses to give in when people disagree with him
Is easy to understand
Refuses to explain his action
Encourages overtime work
Tries out his new ideas
Assigns people under him to specific tasks

Subsequent analysis of several thousand subordinates’ responses to such questions consistently yielded two dimensions or factors that underlie subordinates’ descriptions of their leaders: consideration and initiating structure. In other words, the actions a leader takes regarding subordinates tend to cluster in one of these two major kinds of leader activities. Consideration is the extent to which the leader’s behavior toward subordinates is characterized by mutual trust, mutual respect, support for subordinate’s ideas, a climate of rapport, and two-way communication. A low score on consideration reflects an impersonal way of dealing with subordinates.

As so often happens with attractive models, the work of the Ohio State researchers was prematurely applied by others as a set of normative prescriptions for leaders to follow, rather than being used as a model to be tested further in order to enhance understanding of leadership. Many entrepreneurs traveled the country assessing supervisors on their measures of initiating structure and consideration. For some reason, they presumed that the ideal leader is one who is high on both leadership dimensions.

For a fee, they would then provide two kinds of services: (1) diagnose a particular leader’s style, using this two dimensional frame work; and (2) propose changes in leadership style that should lead to improved leader effectiveness.

In all this entrepreneurial flurry two major questions went unanswered: (1) How do we know when a leader is effective? (2)What factors determine whether or not a given style of leadership behavior will be effective? Reliable answers to the first question remain the subject of continuing research. The problem is that the goals of a leader are many, and each constitutes valid dimensions of leader effectiveness. At the very least, we can say that the following are elements of leader effectiveness (a) individual effectiveness of subordinates in accomplishing their tasks, (b) the morale or satisfaction of subordinates, (c) the productivity or efficiency of groups of subordinates in accomplishing their tasks,(d) the quality of products or services generated by subordinates groups.

Fortunately, research on what constitutes the most effective leadership style became the topic of serious research efforts during leadership style became the topic of serious research efforts during the 1970’s. Two such efforts deserve our particular attention: (1) the work of Fred Fiedler and (2) the path goal theory of leadership.

Building upon the results of the Ohio State studies, Fiedler reasoned, that there was probably no single best leader style to fit all work situations. His research has identified three major situational factors that determine the appropriateness of a given style of leadership.