The capability to lead and influence people is essential for success even beyond management. Professionals without a formal leadership role find themselves more and more often in situations where it is key to deliberately influence people, teams, divisions or the whole organization. Thus despite – or perhaps precisely because of its great relevance, leadership is often seen as something mystic. This impression is reinforced by a large number of popular business bestsellers about leadership, CEO biographies, and executive consultants who rely on individual experiences and anecdotal evidence when writing and talking about leadership. These sources generally provide only a limited informative value and therefore are of questionable use for the development of leaders and professionals.
There is a large number of leadership theories and approaches.
We spent some time to take a look behind the scene and to examine the concept of leadership based on a review of contemporary leadership research and theory. We soon realized that – as it is often the case in life – the one-size-fits-all approach to explain leadership does not exist. Instead, there are a large number of different theories and research findings that provide valuable insights into the facts behind leadership. Below we would like to give you an overview of the most important leadership approaches by drawing on scientific evidence. In our "How to lead" guide you will find an in depth overview of what leadership is really about and how you can implement it in a way such that your employees and your organization thrive.
Leadership describes deliberate influence on people, groups, and companies.
This is confirmed by a number of studies which suggest that good leadership can result in reduced employee fluctuation (Sellgren et al. 2007), increased performance, and higher employee job satisfaction (Gerstner and Day 1997). Waldman et al. (2001) come to the conclusion that especially in times of high risk, charismatic leadership has a positive influence on the company’s performance. Barrick et al. (1991) estimated the effect of outstanding leadership on a company’s financial performance at more than 15%.
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While leadership can have a tremendous postive impact on organizational performance, it can also damage it under certain conditions. There is a dark side of leadership which has the potential to cause long-lasting damage to an organization and its employees (Hogan and Kaiser 2005). Especially negative personal traits like narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellism play a substantial role in this context.
Trait and skill focused leadership theories: Are leaders born or made?
The question whether certain people are born to be leaders also referred to “Naturals” after Peter F. Drucker, is still topic of ongoing intensive discussions. The current state of the art assumes that there are indeed certain attributes that characterize good leaders as well as abilities that can be built up and enhanced by specific development methods. This understanding of leadership is rooted in the trait-based approach to leadership which has a long history in leadership research.
Leadership is what others expect from the leader: Implicit leadership theories.
Everyone works with models and heuristics in order to make decisions quickly and without a big effort in their daily life. This models and heuristics are part of our subconsciousness (implicit) and define what we expect from leaders (Junker and van Dick 2014). In this context, integrity, decisiveness, competence, and vision are often listed as prototypes for implicit expectations towards leaders (Hogan and Kaiser 2005). Implicit expectations influence our decisions just as other prototypes even without us being aware of them (Scullen et al. 2000). This may lead to disadvantages during the leader selection process and evaluation.
Leadership as inspiration: From transactional to transformational leadership.
In the 80s, first discussions started that a mechanical understanding of leadership that focused on addressing deviations was not anymore up to date. Instead, people focused on leadership with emotions, symbols, and inspiration. This resulted in a number of so-called neo-charismatic leadership theories with transformational and charismatic leadership being the most widespread concepts (Avolio et al. 2009). Current studies suggest that leadership which follows this approach is superior to leadership following the transactional approach (Fiol et al. 1999). However, there are also critical voices pointing out that neo-charismatic leadership theories lack a ethical dimension which led to the introduction of ethical and authentic leadership.
The ethic and positive dimensions of leadership: Authentic leadership.
A number of scandals in economy, politics, and sports in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium started a discussion about the moral and ethical standards of leaders. This led to a number of regulatory changes and triggered both schoolars and prectitioneers to think about a new understanding of leaderhip that puts the people, ethics and moral dimension first. As a consequence, a understanding ofleadership characterized by authenticity, positive psychology, and motivation research emerged. Authentic leadership is one of the most recents approaches to leadership and still evolves as research and theory progresses.
From the great man to the great team theory: Leadership as team effort.
The understanding of leadership held by the general public usually puts one person at the center of all activities. Even if it may seem like this is the case at first glance, in general it is a whole team that is leading an organization. The development and leadership of such a team is therefore the critical factor for every organization (Hogan and Kaiser 2005). Of particular importance in this context is the so-called behavior complexity of leadership teams (Carmeli and Halevi 2009). Underlying is the premise that leadership teams which are able to adjust particularly well to certain situations are able to increase the organization’s ambidexterity. Organizational ambidexterity refers to the capability of an organization to simultaneously explore and exploit which is crucial in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.
Organizations as complex systems: Complexity leadership.
Most of the above mentioned leadership approaches rely on leader characteristics, behavior or the leader-follower relationship as key element for organizational success. Complexity leadership (Lichtenstein et al., 2006) takes a different perspective and points towards understanding organizations as social systems. Complexity leadership also rejects the claim that leaders can control organizations with linear management interventions. This holistic understanding of organizations emphasizes the role social interactions and emergence play in successfully leading organizations.
Leadership is a topic that concerns us all. In a connected society it is not only about traditional leaders who influence current developments, but it is about every single one of us. In particular, this concerns organizations where project manager, experts, and other professionals are taking over more and more leadership tasks. In this blog we presented an overview of current leadership concepts and theories.
References and further reading
Avolio, Bruce J.; Gardner, William L. (2005): Authentic leadership development. Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. In: The Leadership Quarterly 16 (3), S. 315–338. DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.001.
Avolio, Bruce J.; Walumbwa, Fred O.; Weber, Todd J. (2009): Leadership. Current theories, research, and future directions. In: Annual review of psychology 60, S. 421–449. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163621.
Barrick, Murray R.; Day, David V.; Lord, Robert G.; Alexander, Ralph A. (1991): Assessing the utility of executive leadership. In: The Leadership Quarterly 2 (1), S. 9–22. DOI: 10.1016/1048-9843(91)90004-l.
Carmeli, Abraham; Halevi, Meyrav Yitzack (2009): How top management team behavioral integration and behavioral complexity enable organizational ambidexterity. The moderating role of contextual ambidexterity. In: The Leadership Quarterly 20 (2), S. 207–218. DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.01.011.
Fiol, C.Marlene; Harris, Drew; House, Robert (1999): Charismatic leadership. In: The Leadership Quarterly 10 (3), S. 449–482. DOI: 10.1016/S1048-9843(99)00021-1.
Gerstner, Charlotte R.; Day, David V. (1997): Meta-Analytic review of leader-member exchange theory. Correlates and construct issues. In: Journal of Applied Psychology 82 (6), S. 827–844. DOI: 10.1037//0021-9010.82.6.827.
Hogan, Robert; Kaiser, Robert B. (2005): What we know about leadership. In: Review of General Psychology 9 (2), S. 169–180. DOI: 10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.199.
Judge, Timothy A.; Bono, Joyce E. (2000): Five-factor model of personality and transformational leadership. In: Journal of Applied Psychology 85 (5), S. 751–765. DOI: 10.1037//0021-9010.85.5.751.
Junker, Nina Mareen; van Dick, Rolf (2014): Implicit theories in organizational settings. A systematic review and research agenda of implicit leadership and followership theories. In: The Leadership Quarterly 25 (6), S. 1154–1173. DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.09.002.
Lichtenstein, B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Orton, J. D., & Schreiber, C. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. Management Department Faculty Publications
Scullen, Steven E.; Mount, Michael K.; Goff, Maynard (2000): Understanding the latent structure of job performance ratings. In: Journal of Applied Psychology 85 (6), S. 956–970. DOI: 10.1037//0021-9010.85.6.956.
Sellgren, Stina; Ekvall, Goran; Tomson, Goran (2007): Nursing staff turnover. Does leadership matter? In: Leadership in Health Services 20 (3), S. 169–183. DOI: 10.1108/17511870710764023.
Waldman, D. A.; Ramirez, G. G.; House, R. J.; Puranam, P. (2001): DOES LEADERSHIP MATTER? CEO LEADERSHIP ATTRIBUTES AND PROFITABILITY UNDER CONDITIONS OF PERCEIVED ENVIRONMENTAL UNCERTAINTY. In: Academy of Management Journal 44 (1), S. 134–143. DOI: 10.2307/3069341.
Markus is a senior management counselor with CQ Net - Management skills at work! He combines more than 15 years hands-on leadership experience from the private sector with in-depth knowledge in the area of people and organizational development. Markus holds a MSc in Organizational Behaviour and a Doctoral Degree in Management.