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Groups and teamwork
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5.4.4 Theories of leadership

  • Trait theories see leadership as requiring certain personal characteristics.

  • Style theories see leadership as the adoption of certain styles of interaction: e.g. task-centred (or structuring) leadership and person-centred (or supporting) leadership.

  • Contingency theories argue that different circumstances demand different modes of leadership.

SAQ 10

For each of the following situations identify the owner of the problem (either the leader, or the subordinate, or others).

  • (a) Jane works too slowly and holds up the work of the department.

  • (b) Howard finds it difficult to do his job because his boss doesn't tell him things he needs to know.

  • (c) Mary is always late for meetings.

  • (d) You are dismayed because John is curt and often impolite in handling telephone calls with clients.

  • (e) The department is unable to meet its production targets because the purchasing department does not order components early enough.


  • (a) The leader's problem.

  • (b) The subordinate's, i.e. Howard's, problem.

  • (c) It depends on who is bothered by it. Lateness is usually the leader's problem.

  • (d) Your problem. (The clients may not notice.)

  • (e) The whole department's problem.

If you got some of these wrong, remember that the owner of a problem is the person (or group) who wants the problem solved; (c) was ambiguous: Is it Mary? her boss? or the group members who want the lateness to be solved?

The difficulty with learning this distinction is that we were all taught the opposite in situations where we were subject to authoritarian leadership. The authoritarian leader makes others change to solve his or her problems (and may also claim ownership of others' problems in return).

SAQ 11

For each of the situations described in SAQ 10construct an appropriate statement of the problem by its owner, phrased so that the ownership is clearly acknowledged in it.


Appropriate responses are those which show that the person who feels there is a problem accepts responsibility for the problem. For example:

  • (a) I have a problem with your rate of work since it appears to me that it is affecting departmental output.

  • (b) I haven't been given the information I need to know how to do this job.

  • (c) If it is the leader's (or other group members') problem: I would like to discuss the timing of meetings since I dislike waiting for others to arrive after the agreed time. If it is Mary's problem: I find it difficult to keep appointments and to arrive punctually.

  • (d) I am dismayed at the way you (John) talk to our customers since I fear you will put them off.

  • (e) We cannot meet our targets because the components aren't here on time.

SAQ 4.3

For each of the following situations indicate which leadership style you consider to be the most appropriate. Also make notes on the reasons for your choice.

  • (a) Chair of an Open University course team. The team has eight members who will work closely together for a period of at least three years on the development of a new course. A lot of the business of meetings involves commenting on each other's drafts of course units, but there is also pressure for the team to meet publishing deadlines.

  • (b) The manager of an 'instant' print shop which employs three other people. The success of the business depends upon being able to complete each job in the shortest possible time.

  • (c) The manager of a department store who has just moved to a branch which has been making a loss for several years. Unless the branch can be made profitable, it will be closed down.


  • (a) Chair of an Open University course team: the ideal chair would be someone who combined person-centred and task-centred approaches. A person-centred style is important because of the high degree of collaboration between creative individuals which is required. Also commenting on each other's work requires some sort of personal support in order to avoid defensiveness. But a task-centred approach is also necessary because there is a succession of deadlines to be met.

  • (b) Manager of an 'instant' print shop: here the success of the business hinges on getting the task done quickly, so a task-centred style is most appropriate.

  • (c) Manager of a branch of a department store: it largely depends on why the branch has been making a loss. If the problems are to do with people and relationships, or the quality of service, a person-centred approach will probably be the best. But if the problems are mainly to do with marketing or the lack of it, or branch layout or stock then a task-centred approach may be more appropriate.

References for Reading 4

Adair, J. (1983) Effective Leadership, Gower.

Blake, R.R. and Mouton, J.S. (1964) The Managerial Grid, Houston, Gulf Publishing Company.

Fiedler, F.E. (1967) Theory of Leadership Effectiveness, McGraw Hill.

Gordon, T. (1977) Leadership Effectiveness Training, Wyden Books. Handy, C. B. (1993, fourth edition) Understanding Organizations, Penguin.

Murnighan, J.K. and Conlan, D.E. (1991) 'The dynamics of intense work groups: a study of British string quartets', Administrative Science Quarterly 36: pp. 165–86.