Perspectives in Leadership Theory and Research

It can be useful to classify leadership theories according to the type of variables that are relevant for understanding leadership effectiveness. These variables include the following:

  • characteristics of leaders
  • characteristics of followers
  • characteristics of the situation

Most leadership theories emphasize one category more than the others as the primary basis for explaining effective leadership. Over the past half-century, leader characteristics have been given the greatest emphasis.

Leadership theories are often classified into the following five approaches:

  • trait approach—Emphasizes attributes of leaders such as personality, motives, values, and skills.
  • behavior approach—Examines how managers cope with demands, constraints, and role conflicts in their jobs.
  • power-influence approach—Examines influence processes between leaders and other people. It takes a leader-centered perspective with an implicit assumption that causality is unidirectional (leaders act and followers react).
  • situational approach—Emphasizes the importance of contextual factors that influence leadership processes. Major situational variables include the characteristics of followers, the nature of the work performed by the leader’s unit, the type of organization, and the nature of the external environment.
  • integrative approach—Includes two or more types of leadership variables in the same study.

Another way to classify leadership theories is in terms of the “levels of conceptualization,” or the type of constructs used to describe leaders and their influence on others. Leadership can be described as the following:

  • an intra-individual process
  • a dyadic process
  • a group process
  • an organizational process

The levels can be viewed as a hierarchy, as depicted in the figure below:

Four squares each one within another, depicting the hierarchy of leadership influence over people.
Leadership Levels of Conceptualization

The important variables in play at different levels of conceptualization for leadership are shown in the table below.

Variables at Different Levels of Conceptualization for Leadership

Intra-Individual theories

Dyadic theories

Group-level theories

Organizational-level theories

  • How leader traits and values influence leadership behavior
  • How leader skills are related to leader behavior
  • How leaders make decisions
  • How leaders manage their time
  • How leaders are influenced by role expectations and constraints
  • How leaders react to feedback and learn from experience
  • How leaders can use self-development techniques
  • How a leader influences subordinate motivation and task commitment
  • How a leader facilitates the work of a subordinate
  • How a leader interprets information about a subordinate
  • How a leader develops a subordinate’s skills and confidence
  • How a leader influences subordinate loyalty and trust
  • How a leader uses influence tactics with a subordinate, peer, or boss
  • How a leader and a subordinate influence each other
  • How a leader develops a cooperative exchange relationship with a subordinate
  • How different leader-member relations affect each other and team performance
  • How leadership is shared in the group or team
  • How leaders organize and coordinate the activities of team members
  • How leaders influence cooperation and resolve disagreements in the team or unit
  • How leaders influence collective efficacy and optimism for the team or unit
  • How leaders influence collective learning and innovation in the team or unit
  • How leaders influence collective identification of members with the team or unit
  • How unit leaders obtain resources and support from the organization and other units
  • How top executives influence members at other levels
  • How leaders are selected at each level (and implications of the process for the firm)
  • How leaders influence organizational culture
  • How leaders influence the efficiency and the cost of internal operations
  • How leaders influence human relations and human capital in the organization
  • How leaders make decisions about competitive strategy and external initiatives
  • How conflicts among leaders are resolved in an organization
  • How leaders influence innovation and major change in an organization
Source: Adapted from Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in organizations. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.