Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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Leadership and followership

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

TheoryFurther 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); Mayer and Salovey (1990)
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.

Download this video clip.Video player: lf_1_video_week2_hartley.mp4
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Well practical experience is really useful in becoming a better leader. But if you don't have theory, and you don't have concepts, then you're always going to be struggling to really try and understand what's going on in a situation, or how you're behaving, or how other people are reacting to you.
So, theory sometimes sounds a bit of a fancy approach to thinking about leadership. But, if you are able to use certain theories, draw on them really. So it isn't that you use theory and you apply it rigidly in any situation. That won't help you at all. But if you've got a set of theories or ideas or concepts that you can draw on while you're actually practicing leadership, then often, it will really help you.
For example, are you in a situation where you're expected to be the single, heroic leader? Or are you in a situation where it's really helpful to know about shared and distributed leadership? If you know some of the research, some of the theory about shared leadership, then you can try- try out some of the ideas from that, and understand how you can draw other people into your leadership.
There's many other examples of where theory or where concepts will really help you. It's almost like having a deck of cards in your hand. And in any situation where you're trying to exercise leadership, or you're trying to get followers to be engaged and attracted to what you're proposing, then, from your pack of cards, you can draw on a particular theory. And think, yes, OK. So this is a transformational leadership situation. So, how am I going to increase the energy and commitment of followers here?
Or alternatively, well this mainly seems to call for transactional leadership. So how am I going to make sure that all the tasks are done, and that people who clear about purposes? And so on.
I think theory is also useful, not only for understanding your own behaviour and your own tasks, but also thinking about how people are reacting to you or how people are behaving towards you. If you've got ideas about, for example, different types of follower, or the different ways in which people can be mobilised to engage in work with you, then the better able you will be to either encourage people to engage you in the task, or to help you deal with people whom you experience as more difficult in your team. And really be thinking about how can I draw them in? Or how can I understand their perspective? And why they feel angry or disengaged or overburdened and don't want to get involved in your particular leadership work.
End transcript
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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.


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