Behavioral theories of Leadership

The inability to explain leadership solely by traits led researchers to look at the behavior of specific leaders. Researchers wondered effective leaders exhibited something unique in their behavior. For example do leaders tend to be more democratic than autocratic?

It was hoped that the behavioral theories of leadership approach would not only provide more definitive answers about the nature of leadership, but, if successful it would also have practical implications quite different form those of the trait approach. If trait research had been successful, it would have provided a basis for selecting the right people to assume formal positions in organizations, requiring leadership. In contrast if behavioral studies were to turn up critical behavioral determinants of leadership, we could train prepare to be leaders. That’s precisely the premise behind the management development programs at, for example most of the Fortune 1000 companies.

A number of studies looked at behavioral styles. We shall briefly review three of the most popular studies. Kurt Lewin’s studies at the University of Iowa, the Ohio State group and the University of Michigan studies. Then we shall see how the concepts that those studies developed could be used to create a grid for appraising leadership styles.

Are there identifiable leadership behaviors?

One of the first studies of leadership behavior was done by Kurt Lewin and his associates at the University of Iowa. In their studies the researcher explored three leader behaviors or styles: autocratic, democratic and Laissez faire. An autocratic style is that of a leader who typically tends to centralize authority dictate work methods, make unilateral decisions, and limit employee participation. A leader with a democratic style tends to involve employees in decision making delegates authority encourages participation in deciding work methods and goals and users feedback as an opportunity to coach employees. The democratic style can be further classified in two ways: consultative and participative. A democratic consultative leader seeks input and hears the concerns and issues of employees but makes the final decision him or herself. In this capacity the democratic consultative leader is using the input as an information seeking exercise. A democratic participative leader often allows employees to have a say in what’s decided. Here, decisions are made by the group with the leader providing one input to that group. Finally, the laissez-faire leader generally gives his or her employees complete freedom to make decisions and to complete their work in whatever way they see fit. A laissez faire leader might simply provide necessary materials ad answer questions.

Lewin and his associates wondered which one of the three leadership styles was most effective. On the basis of their studies of leaders from boys’ clubs they concluded that the laissez faire style was ineffective on every performance criterion when compared with democratic and autocratic leaders, but work quality and group satisfaction were higher in democratic groups. The results suggest that a democratic leadership style could contribute to both good quantity and high quality of work.

Democratic style of leadership

The term used to describe a leader who involves employees in decision making, delegates authority encourages participation in deciding work methods and goals and uses feedback to coach employees.

Laissez faire style of leadership

The term to describe a leader who generally gives his or her employees complete freedom to make decisions and to complete their work in whatever way they see fit.

Later studies of autocratic and democratic styles of leadership showed mixed results. For example, democratic leadership styles sometimes produced higher performance levels than autocratic styles, but at other times they produced group performance that was lower than or equal to that of autocratic styles. Nonetheless more consistent results were generated when measure of employee satisfaction was used.

Group members’ satisfaction levels were generally higher under a democratic leader than under an autocratic one.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt developed a continuum of leader behaviors. The continuum illustrates that a range of leadership behaviors, all the way from boss centered (autocratic) on the left side of the model to employee centered (laissez – faire) on the right side of the model, is possible. In deciding which leader behavior from the continuum to use, Tannenbaum and Schmidt proposed that managers look at forces within themselves (such as comfort level with the chosen leadership style) forces within the employees (such as readiness to assume responsibility) and forces within the situation (such as time pressures). They suggested that managers should move toward more employee centered styles in the long run because such behavior would increase employees’ motivation decision quality, teamwork, morale and development.

This dual nature of leader behaviors – that is, focusing on the work to be done and focusing on the employees – is also a key characteristic of the Ohio State and university of Michigan studies.