Organizational leadership in the past and present

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, while the term ‘leader’ appeared in the English language as early as the 1300s’, the term ‘leadership’ came into existence only in the 1800s’ (Allio, 2005). Since that time, the concept of organizational leadership had evolved and has been studied by scholars with different perspectives. Early leadership theories were based on organizational hierarchy where leaders gave orders and followers rigidly follow such orders. The subordinates had no say in decision-making. This left little scope for any creativity. The leaders were essentially authoritarian in nature and followers were expected to be passive and obedient (Martin et al., 2006). Over the time, with increasing complexities of market environments, there has been a transformation in leadership patterns from being transactional to transformational and participative leadership styles. Let’s see how the concept of leadership has evolved over time.

Trait theory of organizational leadership

The Trait theory is based on the “Great Man Theory” that states leaders are born not made. The theory suggests that leaders can be distinguished from the non-leaders on the basis of certain essential qualities or traits including intelligence, ambitious, responsibility, and confidence (Martin et al., 2006).

Behavioral theory of organizational  leadership

In the 1950s’, behavioral style of organizational leadership emerged, that laid emphasis on certain behaviors of leaders and how they treated their followers. The University of Michigan and Ohio State studies identified two dimensions of leadership; employee-oriented and production-oriented. While employee-oriented leaders stress the interpersonal relations and take interest in personal problems of employees. The production-oriented leaders are concerned more with the accomplishment of organizational tasks and employees for them they are only a mean to complete assigned tasks (Robbins, 2009).

Style theory of organizational leadership

This theory suggests that leaders follow different styles to influence their followers. Bass (1990) suggests three leadership styles which are most common: democratic, autocratic and abdicratic or laissez-faire. While autocratic leader is highly directive and does not welcome subordinates’ feedback; the democratic leader works with the team. The abdicratic leader however leaves complete execution on the team providing only the necessary directions (Bass, 1990 cited in Martin et al., 2006).

Contingency theory of leadership

Contingency theory of leadership establishes that there is no best way to lead. This theory suggests that a leader’s capability can be analyzed only by how one manages a given situation. The basic idea here is that this theory criticizes the traditional ‘best approach’ way to leadership and provides that leaders need to understand situation differences and respond appropriately (Vector Study, 2014).

Relational theory of leadership

Relational theory of leadership is based upon leader-follower exchange that describes the nature of the relations between leaders and their followers. High-quality relations between a leader and followers lead to improved trust, mutual respect, and positive outcomes. While low-quality relations between a leader and followers are based on the satisfaction of contractual obligations (Antonakis et al., 2003).

Neo-charismatic or transformational approach

Neo-charismatic leadership involves a process of change which ultimately leads to the transformation of followers. Here, leadership is not aimed at securing reluctant obedience or indifferent compliance to the leader by followers; this approach rather emphasizes a discretionary participative behavior from the followers  (Antonakis et al., 2003). This is the current leadership pattern observed in most successful organizations.

How important is organizational leadership?

Seters and Field (n.d.). describe this whole evolution of organizational leadership as ‘Leadership Eras.’ Starting with the ‘Personality Era’ to the ‘Influence Era’ then ‘Behavior Era’, ‘Situation Era’, ‘Contingency Era’ to ‘Transformational Era.’ It can be seen that the early paradigms of leadership were focused on the mutual satisfaction of transactional obligations. However, in changing times, a different type of leadership was needed to deliver greater follower accountability. This led to the evolution of transformational leadership which stressed on charismatic, visionary, and inspiring leader behaviors to motivate followers to perform better (Antonakis et al., 2003). Today, effective leadership is an essential ingredient of organizational success. Leaders are trained, coached, and mentored to make them technologically advanced and help organizations resolve their matters.


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