Psychology Of Leadership Research Paper

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Leadership is a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a task or objective. Effective leadership requires that the person in the leadership role establish trust and credibility to enlist the support of followers; build relationships with those followers that motivate them to contribute their energy and resources to the collective effort; and manage, direct, and apply those collective resources to accomplish the group’s mission or task. The study of leadership has focused on the characteristics of leaders, followers, and situational contexts. It has sometimes taken an individualistic focus and sometimes a group orientation. It has concerned itself both with the ‘realities’ of leader and follower behavior and situational parameters, as well as with the perceptual constructions and biases surrounding the leadership relationship. The paragraphs which follow will present the major empirical and theoretical trends in the leadership literature and will end with an integrative summary.

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1. Early Attempts: Blind Alleys And Dead Ends

1.1 Traits

The first 50 years of scientific leadership research (roughly 1910–60) were characterized by failed attempts to find simple explanations for a complex phenomenon. The earliest research on leadership was influenced by the successes in the development of the first intelligence tests and pursued a search for a leadership trait, i.e., a stable, personal characteristic associated with leadership status or effectiveness. A wide range of obvious traits was chosen for examination, including intelligence, social sensitivity, dominance, physical height or bearing, and so on. Stogdill (1948) reviewed over 125 leadership trait studies and concluded that no single trait or collection of traits was consistently related to leadership status, nor, he concluded, should one expect them to be. He based his conclusion on two points of analysis. First, leadership was such a complex process and occurred in so many different contexts with different tasks and goals (e.g., combat leadership vs. academic leadership) that no one trait should predict leadership in all situations. Second, he believed that a truly useful theory of leadership would require the integration of leadership traits and situations and specify the nature of their interaction.

1.2 Behaviors

After traits, research focused on the description and measurement of leader behavior. A broad range of methods included interviews with workers describing their supervisors; observations and categorization of the behavior of student groups in the laboratory; and questionnaire ratings of military and industrial leaders. The most extensive and influential of these projects was the development of the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire (LBDQ) (Hemphill 1950). The LBDQ included 150 descriptions of leadership behavior grouped into a questionnaire that allowed for the rating of leader behavior by subordinates, peers, superiors, or trained observers. Subsequent analyses of these ratings indicated that leader behavior fell into two general categories. The first, labeled Consideration, included leader attempts to create a positive group climate through attentiveness and consideration of the feelings and concerns of subordinates. The second factor, labeled Initiation of Structure, reflected leadership efforts to accomplish the group’s assigned task by organizing, directing, and structuring the work of subordinates. These two general behavioral orientations—a concern with task and a concern with followers—was common to many measures and observations of leader behavior, but did not, unfortunately, seem to have much predictive power to distinguish effective from non-effective leadership.

1.3 Situations

Although not at the mainstream of early leadership research, a few investigations of the effects of situational variables on leadership were done. While no common theory of situations emerged, it was found that situational factors such as the nature of the group’s task, the structure of communication networks, and the number of people in the group could affect leadership patterns. The failure of the trait, behavior, and situational approaches highlighted the cogency of Stogdill’s (1948) suggestion that a good theory must integrate these elements and set the stage for the emergence of the ‘contingency theories.’

2. The Contingency Theories

The notion underlying contingency theories is that the relationship of a leader’s characteristics (e.g., personality, behavioral style) to group performance is moderated by (i.e., contingent upon) aspects of the leadership situation or environment.

2.1 The Contingency Model Of Leadership Effectiveness

The first and most extensively researched and validated of the contingency theories is the Contingency Model (Fiedler 1967, Fiedler and Chemers 1984). The leader characteristic included in the model is the leader’s ‘motivational orientation’ which determines the priority of task accomplishment relative to interpersonal harmony. So-called ‘task-motivated’ leaders who emphasize structure, order, and clear directions are differentiated from ‘relationship-motivated’ leaders who emphasize cohesion, flexibility, and participative decision-making. The situational variable in the Contingency Model is the degree of predictability and orderliness in the task environment which is, in turn, determined by the supportiveness of followers, the clarity and structure in the task, and the amount of formal authority accorded the leader. Task-motivated leaders are most effective in situations where their emphasis on clear direction and structure fits well with existing levels of orderliness (i.e., highly predictable situations) or might contribute what is lacking and needed (as in highly unpredictable situations). Relationship-motivated leaders fare best when their more flexible and responsive style fits with the ambiguities of moderately predictable situations where some elements contribute to orderliness, but others might detract from it (e.g., situations requiring creativity or sensitivity to potential conflict).

Elaborations and extensions of the Contingency Model have shown that the fit between leader and situation was related to the leader’s experienced stress and stress-related illness (Chemers et al. 1985), and that such stress affected the ability of the leader to make effective use of cognitive resources such as intelligence and job-related experience (Fiedler and Garcia 1987).

2.2 The Path–Goal Theory Of Leadership

The basic premise of Path–Goal Theory (House 1996) is that the leader’s most important function is to enhance subordinate motivation by clarifying the paths to the subordinate’s goals and making it easier for the subordinate to traverse those paths. The empirical research on the model focused on how situational factors (including the subordinate’s personality, needs, and task-relevant ability and the nature of the task environment), moderated the relative impact of the leader’s ‘structuring’ or ‘considerate’ behavior on subordinate motivation, satisfaction, and performance. Path-goal theory predicts (with moderate to good empirical support) that leader structuring and direction will be most helpful and have their most positive effects when subordinates lack ability or are confronted with situations of task demand/or complexity beyond their capability. Conversely, considerate and supportive leader behavior will be most satisfying and motivating for subordinates who are confronted with boring or aversive situations. In other words, leader behavior which provides what the subordinate needs most to cope with the situation will be most well received.

2.3 Normative Decision Theory

Vroom and Yetton (1973) presented a theory of group decision-making that argues that the most accurate and effective decisions will be made when the leader employs a decision strategy that is compatible with the characteristics of the decision situation. Decision strategies vary with the degree to which the leader allows subordinate participation in decision-making. Situational variables reflect the clarity of the decision environment (i.e., how much structured, interpretable information is available) and how cooperative and supportive the subordinates are. Autocratic decisions are most efficient when information is clear and followers are supportive. As decision-making ambiguity increases, because of follower resistance or equivocal information, more participative, democratic decision strategies offer the potential for greater follower involvement leading to better information processing and higher motivation.

These three major contingency approaches, as well as a number of less prominent theories, share an emphasis on leader variables related to structuring vs. consideration and power-sharing and on situational variables related to clarity, predictability, and order. They all agree that the most effective leadership style depends on the fit or match to the situational contingencies.

3. Exchange Theories: From Transaction To Transformation

Leadership is a relationship between leader and follower, and like all relationships, must be grounded in both parties’ perceptions that the relationship is fair and mutually beneficial. The quality of the relationship between leader and follower can vary widely.

3.1 Legitimacy

The act of choosing to follow a leader is based on the perception that the surrendering of some degree of personal autonomy will be advantageous to the follower. Hollander (1964) found that the legitimacy of an individual’s status as a potential leader was based on followers’ perceptions that the potential leader possessed task-relevant competence and loyalty to collective values and goals. A competent and trustworthy leader holds the promise of facilitating the goal attainment of the followers.

3.2 Quality Of Exchange

Relationships between leader and follower can range from poor to excellent. Graen and Scandura (1987) report that high quality exchanges are characterized by a leader’s willingness to afford the follower greater participation in decision-making, wider job scope, and more opportunities for personal development, and lead to greater follower motivation and commitment.

3.3 Transformational Leadership

The leader–follower relationship can move beyond a self-interested, quid pro quo transaction between leader and follower to an interaction which transforms the follower into a fully committed, mission-dedicated team member. House and Shamir (1993) argue that such transformative relationships are made possible by attaching the follower’s personal identity and self-esteem to the collective mission. Bass (1998) has shown that transformative relationships are characterized by the perceptions of the leader as (a) possessing exceptional task-related competencies, (b) defining the group’s mission in inspirational ways, (c) showing personal and individualized consideration for follower needs, and (d) providing a work environment for followers that is intellectually challenging and growth promoting. Teams led by such transformational leaders evidence much higher levels of motivation, commitment, satisfaction, and performance than average groups.

4. Perception And Judgment

Relationships depend on the perceptions of the parties involved—both perceptions of leaders by followers and other observers and judgments of followers by leaders.

4.1 Perceptions Of Leadership

If leaders gain legitimacy by being perceived as competent and trustworthy, how are such judgments made? Extensive research by Lord and his associates (Lord and Maher 1991) reveals that judgments of leaders are influenced by two processes, labeled ‘recognition’ and ‘inference.’ People have expectations or ‘prototypes’ (i.e., sets of traits and behaviors associated with a social role) for leaders which provide the basis for recognizing a good leader. When a person behaves in a way that is seen as sufficiently similar to the leadership prototype, followers and other observers make the judgment that the person is, indeed, a leader or a good leader. Subsequent perceptions and memories of the leader are guided by the prototype, meaning that an individual already judged as a leader is more likely to be perceived and remembered as leader-like in the future. Observers also infer a leader’s competency by association with the outcomes of the group led. When groups are highly successful or unsuccessful, inferences are made to the leader. This tendency to attribute almost all group outcomes to the effects of leadership can be so exaggerated that it has been labeled the ‘romance of leadership’ (Meindl 1990).

4.2 Judgments Of Followers

Leader actions toward subordinates are heavily determined by judgments of follower ability and motivation which are based on observations of follower behavior and task-related success and failure. Research indicates that leaders use a variety of contextual cues to understand the causes of a subordinate’s success or failure, including the consistency of the performance, its uniqueness compared to the performance of other subordinates, and situational factors that might have affected performance (Mitchell and Wood 1980). However, the success and failure of subordinates have important implications for the success or failure of the leader—a fact which makes leaders prone to ego-defensive judgments that can lead to placing the blame for failure on the individual subordinate while other possible causes (e.g., poor training, inadequate organizational support) are not considered (Brown 1984).

5. An Integrative Summary

The extensive empirical literature on leadership effectiveness can be summarized into three pervasive elements: image management, relationship development, and resource deployment. Effective leaders must be able to project an image of competency and honesty that legitimates the validity of their authority. They must establish motivating and rewarding relationships with followers by understanding follower needs and capabilities, and providing coaching and guidance that both facilitate good current performance and provide the possibility for personal growth. Finally, effective leaders must use the energies and resources of groups efficiently by matching the processes of communication, problem-solving, and decision-making to the task and organizational environment, i.e., by using directive and structuring process when the environment is clear and predictable and by using more flexible and participative process when the situation is equivocal and unpredictable.


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