The Comparison of Behavior Theory, Contingency Theory and Transformational Theory

Table of Content

Leadership is one of the most complex and multifaceted phenomena to which organisational and psychological research has been applied. While the term “leader” was noted as early as the 1300s (The Oxford English Dictionary, 1933) and conceptualised even before biblical times, the term leadership has been in existence only since the late 1700s (Stogdill, 1974).

Even then, scientific research on the topic did not begin until the 20th century (Bass, 1981). Since that time, however, there has been intensive research on the subject, addressing leadership from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, Warren Bennis (1959) stated that: Of all the hazy and confounding areas in social psychology, leadership theory undoubtedly contends for the top nomination. And, ironically, probably more has been written and less known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioural sciences (p. 259).

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Burns (1978) similarly remarked that “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. ” This problem arises not only in understanding the operation of the theory but also in its definition. Stogdill (1974) claimed that “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as those who have attempted to define the concept”. Yet still we persist in trying to explain the key question: What makes an effective leader? This question has engendered considerable interest because leadership conjures up powerful and romantic images (Meindl, Ehrlich and Dukerich, 1985; Yukl, 1989).

In fact, in these times of rapid change and environmental complexity, leadership has taken on greater importance than ever before. Given the above, it seems very worthwhile to return to the historical foundations of leadership theory and review the progress that has been made. The purpose of this article is to analyse the major areas of leadership research using the taxonomy and nomenclature of evolution, and to acknowledge each major leadership research approach in terms of evolutionary eras and periods.

This developmental strategy reveals the path along which leadership theory has evolved. The intent is not to criticise each major theory (see Yukl, 1989, Leadership in Organisations, for an in-depth review), but rather to categorise the major leadership thought processes, providing a broad framework against which to measure existing leadership theories and to prescribe future directions JOCM 3,3 30 in leadership theorising. This article will benefit academic researchers who want to improve leadership theories, and practising managers who want to use them.

While traditional evolutionary diagrams show each era of development occurring in a chronological sequence, the model of leadership theory evolution shown here does not strictly do so. The reason is that the historical lines of thought on leadership have occurred within a relatively short time-period, and many of them have arisen and subsided simultaneously. Thus, in the current model, there is no recognition of the dates when the various eras occurred, only a recognition of their relative order in the development of leadership theory. Each new era represents a higher stage of development in leadership thought process than the preceding era.

The major leadership eras and periods are presented in Table I along with examples of particular theories. While the empirical validity of several theories is discussed, the emphasis here is on the congruent thought processes behind them. The evolutionary tree of leadership theory (see Figure 1) is useful for visualising the historical development of leadership thought. The Leadership Eras The Personality Era The Personality Era included thefirstformal leadership theories, and represented a beginning in the understanding of the leadership process. That era is divided into the Great Man Period and the Trait Period.

In the former, researchers focused on great men (and some women) in the history of the world, and suggested that a person who copied their personalities and behaviours would become a strong leader (Borgotta, Rouch and Bales, 1954; Galton, 1869). The pivotal study in that period was conducted by Bowden (1927), who equated leadership with personality. Some theorists have even attempted to explain leadership based on inheritance (e. g. Jennings, 1960).

That process was frustrated, however, when it became apparent that many effective leaders had widely differing personalities (e. . Hitler, Gandhi, King). Furthermore personalities are extremely difficult to imitate, thereby providing little value to practising managers. Leadership theory was advanced only slightly in the Trait Period, when attempts were made to remove the links with specific individuals and simply to develop a number of general traits which, if adopted, would enhance leadership potential and performance. Failure loomed again, however, when empirical studies revealed no single trait or group of characteristics associated with good leadership (Jenkins, 1947).

Here again, the findings provided minimal value to practising leaders since most traits cannot be learned. As a result, the theories of the Personality Era proved to be too simplistic and have virtually become extinct. Traits have, however, been added to later theories as explanatory variables (e. g. Fiedler, 1964, 1967; House, 1971), but the main focus of those later theories was not on the traits of the leader. The Influence Era This era improved on the Personality Era by recognising that leadership is a Personality Era Great Man Period Great Man Theory (Bowden, 1927; Carlyle, 1841; Galton, 1869)

  1. Trait Period Trait Theory (Bingham, 1927)
  2. Influence Era Power Relations Period Five Bases of Power Approach (French, 1956; French and Raven, 1959)
  3. Persuasion Period Leader Dominance Approach (Schenk, 1928)
  4. Behaviour Era Early Behaviour Period Reinforced Change Theory (Bass, 1960)
  5. Ohio State Studies (Fleishman, Harris and Burtt, 1955)
  6. Michigan State Studies (Likert, 1961)
  7. Late Behaviour Period Managerial Grid Model (Blake and Mouton, 1964)
  8. Four-Factor Theory (Bowers and Seashore, 1966)
  9. Action Theory of Leadership (Argyris, 1976)
  10. Theory X and Y (McGregor, 1960; McGregor, 1966)
  11. Operant Period (Sims, 1977; Ashour and Johns, 1983)
  12. Situation Era Environment Period Environment Approach (Hook, 1943)
  13. Open-Systems Model (Katz and Kahn, 1978)
  14. Social Status Period Role Attainment Theory (Stogdill, 1959)
  15. Leader Role Theory (Homans, 1959)
  16. Socio-technical Period Socio-technical systems (Trist and Bamforth, 1951)
  17. Contingency Era Contingency Theory (Fiedler, 1964)
  18. Path-Goal Theory (Evans, 1970; House, 1971)
  19. Situational Theory (Hersey and Blanchard, 1969; 1977)
  20. Multiple Linkage Model (Yukl, 1971; 1989)
  21. Normative Theory (Vroom and Yetton, 1973; Vroom and Jago, 1988)
  22. Transactional Era Exchange Period Vertical Dyad Linkage/ Leader Member Exchange Theory (Dansereau, Graen and Haga, 1975)
  23. Reciprocal Influence Approach (Greene, 1975)
  24. Emergent Leadership (Hollander, 1958)
  25. Role Development Period Social Exchange Theory (Hollander, 1979; Jacobs, 1970)
  26. Role-Making Model (Graen and Cashman, 1975)
  27. Continued . . . Evolution of Leadership Theory 31 Table I. The Evolutionary Stages of Leadership Theory JOCM 3,3

The Ohio State and Michigan Studies identified two important leader behaviour traits: initiating structure (leader emphasis on accomplishment of tasks) and consideration (leader concern for individual and group cohesion) (Griffin, Skivington and Moorhead, 1987). The Late Behaviour Period advanced the Early Behaviour Period theories by adapting them for managerial application. Probably the best known is the Managerial Grid Model which uses a 9 x 9 grid with consideration behaviour Evolution of Leadership Theory marked along one axis and initiating structure behaviour along the other. It suggests that the most effective leader will be rated 9 on both of these behaviours (Blake and Mouton, 1964, 1978). Theories X and Y have also received considerable attention.

Theory X states that people are passive and thus must be directed and extrinsically motivated to serve organisational needs, whereas Theory Y states that people are already intrinsically motivated and thus need only proper working conditions (McGregor, 1966). In the latter period of the Behaviour Era, then, there was a realisation that leaders do not directly cause subordinate behaviour, but rather provide the conditions and stimulus for its evocation (Bass, 1981). The Operant Period (Ashour and Johns, 1983; Sims, 1977) focused on the leader as the manager of reinforcements, with the appropriate leader behaviour the reinforcement of the desired subordinate behaviours. The various theories in that era were thoroughly researched, but the empirical evidence in support of them was mixed (cf. Kerr and Schriesheim, 1974).

The Situation Era This era made a significant step forward in advancing leadership theory by acknowledging the importance of factors beyond the leader and the subordinate. Examples include the type of task, the social status of the leader and subordinates, the relative position power of the leader and subordinates, and the nature of the external environment (Bass, 1981). Those situational aspects then determine the kinds of leader traits, skills, influence and behaviours that are likely to cause effective leadership. In the Environment Period, leaders were thought to arise only by being in the right place at the right time in the right circumstances; their actions were inconsequential.

Under that approach the particular person in the leadership position was irrelevant, because, if he/she were to leave, someone else would simply take his/her place (Hook, 1943). There was empirical support for this approach; and many researchers have suggested that we introduce more environmental variables, such as economic factors, into the leadership context (McCall and Lombardo, 1977). The Social Status Period was based on the idea that, as group members undertake specific tasks, they reinforce the expectation that each individual will continue to act in a manner congruent with his or her previous behaviour. Thus, the leader’s and the subordinate’s roles are defined by mutually confirmed expectations of the behaviour and interactions they are permitted to contribute to the group (Stogdill, 1959).

In essence the Environment Period focused on the task, while the Social Status Period stressed the social aspect in a particular situation. A third category is the Socio-technical Period which essentially combined the environmental and social parameters (e. g. Trist and Bamforth, 1951). The latter two periods are considered an advancement over the environment period because they begin to recognise group influences. The Contingency Era The Contingency Era represented a major advance in the evolution of leadership theory. For the first time it was recognised that leadership was not found in any of the pure, unidimensional forms discussed previously, but rather contained elements of them all.

In essence, effective leadership was contingent or dependent on one or more of the factors of behaviour, personality, influence, and situation. Typically, leadership approaches of that era attempted to select the situational moderator variables which best revealed which leadership style to use. Many researchers were convinced that finally the source of leader effectiveness had been found, and a corresponding flood of contingency theories occurred. The three most noteworthy theories of that era were the Contingency Theory (Fiedler, 1964; 1967), the Path-Goal Theory (Evans, 1970; House, 1971; House and Mitchell, 1974) and the Normative Theory (Vroom and Yetton, 1973; Vroom and Jago, 1988).

Fiedler’s Contingency

Theory emphasised the need to place leaders in situations most suited to them (Fiedler, 1967), or to train the leader to change the situation to match his or her own style (Fiedler, Chemers and Mahar, 1976). House’s Path-Goal Theory addressed a different contingency. It focused less on the situation or leader behaviour, and more on providing enabling conditions for subordinate success (House, 1971). The Normative Model differed again by advising the leader which decision-making behaviour would be most appropriate, depending on the situation and the need for decision acceptance and/or quality (Vroom and Yetton, 1973). This last approach generated significant appeal, because it had wide applicability to leaders.

It meant that despite your traits and degree of power/influence, you could change your behaviour to increase leader effectiveness in different situations. While the Contingency approaches have generated strong empirical support as well as controversy (e. g. Burke, 1965; Dessler and Valenzi, 1977; Field, 1979, 1982; Jago and Ragan, 1986; Peters, Hartke and Pohlman, 1985; Vroom and Jago, 1978; see Yukl, 1989, for a review), and are still heavily utilised in contemporary leadership study, they have substantial drawbacks. First they are all very different from one another, so much so that it is impossible to establish distinct periods within that era. All seem to have part of the answer to the leadership puzzle, yet none has all of the answer.

Secondly many are too cumbersome for systematic use in day-to-day managerial practice though there is a computer program to aid the use of the Vroom-Jago theory. Leaders are so involved in making decisions and responding to organisational “brush fires” that they have no time to analyse the stuation with a complex model (Bass, 1981). Despite the fact that more research effort has been exerted in that era than in any previous era, those theories generally seem to have limited utility. Except for an important recognition of the interactive nature of the initial leadership eras, there was still little understanding of the nature of the interactions.

The Transactional Era

The study of leadership was revitalised once more when it was suggested that perhaps leadership resided not only in the person or the situation, but also and rather more in role differentiation and social interaction. This thought spawned the Transactional Era, which essentially is the Influence Era revisited since it addresses the influence between the leader and subordinate. However Evolution of Leadership Theory 35 JOCM 3,3 36 at that stage of evolutionary development the influence process has been elevated to acknowledge the reciprocal influence of the subordinate and the leader, and the development of their relative roles over time. Those two elements are discussed below, in the Exchange Period and Role Development Period respectively.

Examples from the Exchange Period include Vertical Dyad Linkage theory (Dansereau, Graen and Haga, 1975; Duchon, Green and Taber, 1986), the Reciprocal Influence Approach (Greene, 1975), and Leader Member Exchange theory (Dienesh and Liden, 1986; Graen, Novak and Sommerkamp, 1982). In those theories, leadership involves transactions between the leader and subordinates that affect their relationship. Also, the leader may have different types of transactions and different relationships with different subordinates. Aspects of emergent leadership also originate there, since emergent leadership requires the consent of subordinates as to who the leader will be (Hollander, 1958).

In that context, leadership exists only after being acknowledged by other group members (Bass, 1981). Leaders tend to emerge as different from followers in their ability to initiate and sustain interaction. Those leaders serve to increase participation of less able members, they accept diverse personalities, and are very tolerant of deviants (Bass, 1981). The theories of leadership in that period have survived well among subsequent leadership eras, and still have a strong place in current leadership theory. In the Role Development Period there still exists an element of exchange but it refers specifically to the relative roles of the leader and the subordinate.

Theories illustrative of that period are Social Exchange Theory (Hollander, 1979; Jacobs, 1970) and the Role-Making Model (Graen and Cashman, 1975). There, the group conveys esteem and status to the leader in return for the leader’s skills in furthering goal attainment. Leadership then becomes an equitable exchange relationship, with no domination on the part of the leader or subordinate (Bass, 1981). Just as the leader acts as a role model and a creator of positive expectations, so too the leader’s behaviour can be a reaction to subordinate maturity, interpersonal skills, and competence (Crowe, Bochner and Clark, 1972; Lowin and Craig, 1968). In that novel approach, it is suggested that leadership could sometimes reside in the subordinate and not in the leader at all.

This was a very disturbing revelation and caused researchers to regress to the roots of leadership theory and ask again: Where is the domain of leadership? The Anti-Leadership Era Numerous empirical studies had been conducted to test the various theories presented up to that point; but unfortunately the results were less than conclusive, and a sentiment arose that perhaps there was no articulable concept called leadership. It seemed as though so many variables in the leadership equation had been explained that they explained nothing at all. As the current paradigm of leadership was not seen to be working, there arose an era of “AntiLeadership”. In the Ambiguity Period, it was argued that perhaps leadership is only a “perceptual phenomenon in the mind of the observer” (Mitchell, 1979).

Pfeffer (1977) wrote an influential article “The Ambiguity of Leadership” which spoke of the leader primarily as a symbol, implying that actual leader performance was of little consequence. Miner (1975) suggested that we should give up and abandon the concept of leadership altogether! Meindl et al. (1985) have followed this line with their concept of the romance of leadership: that leadership is actually an encompassing term to describe organisational changes that we do not otherwise understand. The Substitute Period was a more constructive developmental phase which evolved directly out of the situational era, and attempted to identify substitutes for leadership.

Kerr and Jermier (1978) suggested in that period that the task and the characteristics of the subordinate and the organisation can prevent leadership from affecting subordinate performance. They wrote both about leader substitutes and leader neutralises in the work situation. That line of thought has been followed by Howell and Dorfman (1981; 1986), and is useful in showing when leadership is less likely to have strong effects on organisational performance. What is often obscured in the Substitute Period is that leader substitutes and neutralises may have been previously built into a situation by a leader; so there is not a lack of leadership, but leadership that occurred at an earlier stage.

The Culture Era

The cynicism of the Anti-Leadership Era wasfinallysuperseded in the Culture Era, when it was proposed that leadership is not perhaps a phenomenon of the individual, the dyad, or even the small group, but rather is omnipotent in the culture of the entire organisation. There also, for thefirsttime, the leadership focus changed from one of increasing the quantity of work accomplished (productivity, efficiency) to one of increasing quality (through expectations, values). This macro-view of leadership included the 7-S Framework (Pascale and Athos, 1981), the In Search of Excellence attributes (Peters and Waterman, 1982), as well as Theory Z (Ouchi, 1981; Ouchi and Jaeger, 1978).

That era was a natural extension to the Leader-Substitute Period since it suggested that, if a leader can create a strong culture in an organisation, employees will lead themselves (Manz and Sims, 1987). Once the culture is established, however, it creates the next generation of leaders. Formal leadership is needed only when the existing culture is changed and a new culture must be created (Schein, 1985). It is also a logical descendant of the Transactional Era, since culture can be created by emergent leadership at lower company levels and then directed to the top levels of the organisation. But again, a leadership paradigm was generated which advocated passive or even absent leadership except during the initiation and change process. Something was still missing from the leadership equation.

The Transformational Era

This era represents the latest and most promising phase in the evolutionary development of leadership theory. Its dramatic improvement over previous eras lies in the fact that it is based on intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic, motivation. Also, in comparison with the transactional era, leaders must be proactive rather Evolution of Leadership Theory 37 JOCM 3,3 38 than reactive in their thinking; radical rather than conservative; more innovative and creative; and more open to new ideas (Bass, 1985). Here, leadership exercises influence to produce enthusiastic commitment by subordinates, as opposed to reluctant obedience or indifferent compliance (Yukl, 1989).

Tichy and Ulrich (1984) additionally state that transformational leadership is essential during organisational transition, by creating visions of potential opportunities and instilling employee commitment to change (see also Tichy and DeVanna, 1986). There are two periods to this era: the Charisma Period and the SelfFulfilling Prophecy Period. The basic theme of the Charisma Period is that leadership must be visionary; it must transform those who see the vision, and give them a new and stronger sense of purpose and meaning. It builds on the Culture Era by viewing leadership as a process of collective action (Roberts, 1985). Leadership rests not only on the shoulders of one invidivual but also on all who share the mission and vision.

In that sense leadership becomes a state of consciousness, rather than a personality trait or set of skills (Adams, 1984). However, unlike the passive leadership suggested in the previous two eras, transforming leadership makes a very active contribution to the organisation. There, strong executive leadership is needed both to create the vision and to empower subordinates to carry it out. The Charisma Period includes charismatic leadership theory, which is a comprehensive theory in which leader traits, behaviours, influence, and situational factors combine to increase subordinate receptivity to ideological appeals (Conger and Kanungo, 1987; House, 1977).

Recent evidence that charisma may be trained has been provided by Howell and Frost (1989). The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) Period is based on recent theorising by Field (1989) on the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy phenomenon. This research deals with the transformation of individual self-concepts, and improves on previous theories by considering the transformation as occurring from the leader to the subordinate just as much as from the subordinate to the leader. In other words, the SFP leader can be activated from lower or upper levels in the organisation. Furthermore that process works not only in dyadic situations, but also in group and organisational contexts.

That idea is elaborated in Field and Van Seters (1988), who suggest that the key success factor of that type of leadership is to build positive expectations. See also Eden (1984) for a model of the selffulfilling prophecy, and tests by Eden and Shani (1982) and Eden and Ravid (1982). The task of leadership thus becomes one of building, monitoring and reinforcing a culture of high expectations. That philosophy is echoed by Bass (1985) in his book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. He suggests that work groups tend to select leaders who they expect will ensure task accomplishment, maintain strategic focus, and facilitate group cohesion. In that manner, subordinates are elevated from concerns for affiliation and security to concerns of self-actualisation, recognition, and achievement.

The previous eras of leadership theory have all suffered from eventual disillusionment and discouragement. While the Transformational Era has only recently come into existence and has not yet endured the rigours of extensive scrutiny and empirical testing, it looks very promising because it draws together many aspects of the previous eras and blends them. Perhaps we have finally arrived at a definitive concept of leadership. Then again, perhaps we are entering yet another era. Future Leadership Theory: The Tenth Era What will be the next era in leadership theory? Where should academic researchers expend their efforts better to understand this phenomenon?

On what elements of leadership should practising managers focus to improve their leadership effectiveness? We can begin to see some clear indications by extrapolating the trends developed in the previous nine eras, and analysing the evolutionary tree of leadership theory (See Figure 1). Leadership theory began as a very one-dimensional, internal and individualistic process in which only a leader’s personality, traits, or behaviours were considered. Then dyadic relationships evolved as the leader’s interactions with others were considered. Situational elements external to the leader-member dyad were subsequently added to the leadership equation, as well as an acknowledgement of group processes.

An important new growth stage was reached in the Contingency Era, as leadership theory evolved from the unidimensional to the multidimensional arena. There, the interaction of the leader, subordinates, and the situation all became important in explaining leadership. Leadership theory was further advanced when the focus changed from leadership being primarily a top-down process to much more of a bottom-up one. Situational and non-leadership factors were considered again, but this time from an integrative perspective. The Culture Era built on the situational factors, but added in the influence of top-level leadership to initiate and change the organisation’s direction. That era also extended the scope of leadership from group interactions to the interactions of the entire organisation.

Finally, the Transformational Era saw leadership as occurring at all levels of the organisation, affected by the persons involved, their situations, and their influences on each other. Each new era evolved after a realisation that the existing era of understanding was inadequate to explain the leadership phenomenon, and poorly adapted to serve useful practical application. It appears that for leadership theory to continue to evolve and provide practical applications for managers, researchers must recognise that leadership:

  • is a complex, interactive process with behavioural, relational, and situational elements.
  • is found not solely in the leader but occurs at individual, dyadic, group, and organisational levels is promoted upwards from lower organisational levels as much as it is promoted downwards from higher levels
  • occurs internally, within the leader-subordinate interactions, as well as externally, in the situational environment.
  • motivates people intrinsically by improving expectations, not just extrinsically by improving reward systems. Evolution of Leadership

While new variables were added early on to leadership conceptualisation, an examination of the evolutionary tree of leadership shows a current narrowing and integrating. It is probable that the Tenth Era will add further variables that will broaden our understanding of leadership, while retaining theoretical constructs and linkages that are now well understood.

Perhaps in future years that will be called the Integrative Era, with theories explaining leadership and organisation structural factors, complex technologies, fast-paced change, multiple decision arenas, widely dispersed players, multicultural contexts, and extensive political activity (e. g. Hunt, Hosking, Schriesheim and Stewart, 1984). What is required is a conceptual integrating framework which ties the different approaches together, and makes possible the development of a comprehensive, sustaining theory of leadership. It must be realised that leadership effectiveness can be determined not from any one approach alone, but rather through the simultaneous interaction of many types of variables. Until we have the framework it will not be possible to understand the result.

We need “thick” theorising which treats leadership more as it should be treated: a complex cognitive and political enterprise (Clark, 1984). Only when the integrative theory is in place can we begin testing. Conclusion The broad realm of leadership theory has been reviewed in this article using an evolutionary developmental approach, which allowed the grouping of many seemingly diverse leadership theories into nine specific and ordered categories. In the past, researchers have provided particular components of leadership with little or no apparent knowledge of where their findings fit into the larger puzzle. Furthermore, practising managers have been exposed only to narrow elements of the leadership equation.

However by using the developmental framework presented in this article, both researchers and managers can now determine on which level they are operating. Only with an integrative framework of that sort will it be possible to make a co-ordinated effort in advancing leadership theory. By pursuing that course, there is reason for controlled optimism while still recognising the significant challenges ahead. This review of leadership theory reveals some important new directions for the future practice of leadership. The new leader must draw on many new qualities in order to perform effectively. The new leader must be visionary, willing to take risks, and highly adaptable to change.

Further, he or she must be willing to delegate authority and place emphasis on innovation. The new leader must exemplify the values, goals, and culture of the organisation and be highly aware of the environmental factors affecting it (Rosow, 1985). The new leader must adopt a new perspective on power. Whereas the old view of power dealt with dominating subordinates, the new strategy should be to build subordinate skills and confidence. Leaders must lead by empowering others, and place increasing emphasis on statesmanship (Pascarella and Cook, 1978). Leaders must take on a more collective view of leadership, in which leader influence is distributed across all levels of an organisation (Osborn, Morris and Connor, 1984).

While a forceful, visible leader is essential at the top, there must be complementary operational and institutional leadership at the lower levels (Nadler and Tushman, 1988). Leaders must pay closer attention to strategic thinking and intellectual activities at the top of the organisation. Executives will be effective primarily in their ability to comprehend, visualise, conceptualise, and articulate to their peers and subordinates the opportunities and threats facing the organisation. The “new leader”, as described by Bennis and Nanus (1985), is one who energises people to action, develops followers into leaders, and transforms organisational members into agents of change.


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The Comparison of Behavior Theory, Contingency Theory and Transformational Theory. (2016, Oct 01). Retrieved from

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