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Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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1 Leadership theory – a brief history

For decades, philosophers, researchers and business experts across the globe have been attempting to define effective leadership and to identify a formula for leadership success.

A statue of Roman Emperor Constantine. He is seated and holding a sword.
Figure 1 Leaders throughout history have had different styles and characteristics.

Too many theories have been proposed for us to cover them comprehensively here, but this is an overview of the most commonly discussed categories, in the order in which they were developed.

Table 1 Leadership theories
Theory Further reading
Trait theories suggest there is a set of personal characteristics that exemplify the ideal leader. Early, so-called ‘great man’ theories, suppose that leaders are born and not made and that these characteristics are fixed. While attitudes have changed since early trait research, there has been a renewed interest in leadership traits, for example, with recent studies on the emotional intelligence of leaders. Mann (1959); Stogdill (1974); Lord, DeVader and Alliger (1986); Caruso et al. (2002)
Behavioural theories focus on leadership as a behavioural pattern i.e. what leaders do and how they do it. The assumption is that these behaviours can be learned and developed, so anyone has the potential to become a leader. Several authors have developed tools that can be used to investigate leadership behaviours, such as the Leader Behaviour Description Questionnaire developed by the Ohio State University in the 1950s and 60s. Stogdill (1963); Likert (1961, 1967); Blake and Mouton (1985)
Contingency theories propose that effective leadership is contingent (or dependent) on the situation and that good leaders adapt their approach or style in response to different situations. Fiedler (1964); Hersey and Blanchard (1993)

Taking these three categories, we can summarise a good leader as someone who:

  • demonstrates the right traits and skills e.g. integrity, empathy etc.
  • exhibits appropriate behaviours
  • adapts to the situation in which they are leading.

The rest of the course will focus on exploring these characteristics further.

What do you think is the core element of good leadership? Which theory do you identify with the most? The next activity will give you an opportunity to explore one of these categories in more detail. If you feel inspired, you could repeat the exercise for each theory!

Activity 1 Choose a theory

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Choose a category from those outlined i.e. trait, behavioural or contingency theories, and research it in more detail. You might look at the references suggested in ‘further reading’ in Table 1 or conduct your own online or library-based research.

In the box below, outline your findings in no more than 200 words.

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Reflect on your own perception of your chosen theory. What do you think are the pros and cons of that approach to leadership? Write a brief summary of your view.

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While a particular theory may be discredited over time, or contradicted by other academics, there are often elements that strike a chord and lead to further research and development of the ideas within it. You may have your own ideas about how current theories could be developed further – perhaps you could use this course as a starting point for a future focus on leadership studies. You’ll find out more about leadership training opportunities in Week 8.

Professor Jean Hartley, Professor of Public Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University, explains why it is useful for leaders to have a theoretical overview to underpin your practical experience.

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You will learn more about leadership skills and behaviours later in the course, but in Section 2 you’ll consider the role that context plays in determining how you lead.