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Classic Theories of Leadership



The interest in understanding what makes a leader effective is a topic of continuous study and discussion.  In this context, it is important to obtain knowledge of the classic leadership theories that have provided the foundation for the constantly evolving studies regarding leadership behaviors.  Early leadership theories such as the Trait Leadership theory focused on the position of the leader and the power associated with that position (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991; Tharenou, 2001).  The Trait Theory suggested that leaders are a product of their innate qualities and challenged the perception of the characteristics common to the industrial and social leaders of the time.  While the Trait Theory was later contested, it was through this theory that some of the foundational elements for Situational leadership and the Contingency Theory were developed.  The Situational Leadership model rests on two concepts: one, that leader effectiveness results from using a behavioral style that is appropriate to the demands of the environment; and two, that leader effectiveness depends on learning to diagnose that environment.  The Contingency Theory argued that leaders can lead most effectively when there is a match between their motivation type and the situation.  Shortly after the development of these concepts, the Path-Goal Theory emerged and it began the measurement of leader effectiveness as a factor of the organizational environment.  The Path-Goal Theory focuses on the situation and leader’s behavior instead of leader’s personality traits.  In this context, the Path-Goal Theory added to the emerging concept of the leader as a coach and mentor.


These classical leadership theories present many of the foundational concepts regarding leadership behaviors and style influences observed in organizations today.  The three core theories also had some conceptual similarities with each other as well.  Conceptually, the Situational Leadership Theory, the Contingency Theory and the Path-Goal Theory all provide relatively common frameworks for synchronizing the structure of a leader to changes in their environment in order to leverage the leaders responsiveness to the environment.  These theories appear to explain the behaviors of leadership on the organization and the effects of a continually shifting balance on that organizational environment.  Specifically, the variables presented in all three theories can be categorized in simple terms of leadership design variables and leadership performance variables.  The important concept to discover from consolidating these variables is that leadership can be observed as a function of multiple interacting environmental and design characteristics, rather than just one or two leadership possibilities.  In this context, as a leader of an organization it is important to understand there is empirical evidence that can help identify the major functions leaders need to accomplish in order to be successful. In other words, in the classic leadership argument regarding nature versus nurture, while there are individuals that may exhibit innate qualities of leadership, all leaders can improve their capabilities by understanding the environmental and design characteristics they need to improve.