Free «Contemporary Leadership Theories» Essay Sample

Contemporary Leadership Theories

1. Introduction

Leadership is a universal phenomenon of social life. It exists everywhere, including large and small organizations, business and religion, companies and universities, informal organizations and mass demonstrations. Interest in leadership and investigation of this complex social phenomenon dates back to antiquity (Kruse). Chinese classical text Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu is a philosophic book about leadership qualities. According to Tao Te Ching, there are three main leadership qualities, which are valuable for the leader: material simplicity, compassion for all human beings and the sense of modesty and equality. Good leadership is unbiased. The leader has to lead without possessiveness or coercion. The wise leader helps other people without taking credit and stays in the background. Modern views on leadership are somewhat different from the historical ones.

Modern concepts of leadership are based on discovering the causes and needs of leadership and its nature; they are mainly descriptive. However, they help find out the main problems of leadership studies. The most famous contemporary leadership concepts are described in this paper.

2. Differences between a Manager and a Leader







Plan is a basis for action

Vision is a basis for action

Relies on a system

Relies on people

Takes into consideration only arguments

Uses both arguments and emotions



Supports the movement

Gives impetus to the movement






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It is obvious that in practice, there is no perfect match to these two types described above. Studies show that a large group of managers in many respects possesses leadership qualities. However, the reverse version is found less often in real life.

The analysis of the nature of leadership shows that it is based on the specific needs of people and their associations. Leadership theories show more detailed information about the nature of leaders.

3. Leadership Theories

3.1. Transforming and Transactional Leadership

One of the most popular leadership styles is transforming leadership that has incorporated elements of humanistic theory. It is based on anticipation, planning, communication, and creativity and includes rallying a group around complex beliefs and values to achieve clear and measurable objectives. Transactional leadership is focused on the motivation of people by using a system of reward and punishment. Such leadership works best with clearly defined system of subordination. Transactional leaders explain the requirements to their subordinates and if necessary punish or reward them. Motivation is common for both views of leadership: historical and modern. Referring to Tao Te Ching, good leadership should involve motivating people. People have to be motivated to a great extent using opportunities, but not simply fulfilling the obligations. It will give people autonomy in their work. 

The most inspirational view in transforming leadership is the fact that this style of leadership is focused on simultaneous development of the personality of each member and the group as a whole. Transforming leadership changes the very nature of the group, turning it into a continuous process of teaching leader how to lead better and more efficiently, and transformation processes affect all components of the phenomenon of leadership. First of all, the leader constantly develops being the most active agent for positive changes. The leader begins to understand his or her employees, environmental conditions and the ability to choose the correct direction to respond to changes that occur in the organization. Transactional leadership focuses on practice management and transformational leadership in terms of the future vision and enthusiasm, and subordinates share the vision of the leader. Transformational leaders must always realize the vision and manage with the changes in an organization (Lewis). All views mentioned above are the most inspirational in transforming and transactional leadership.

3.2. Trait Theory

Trait theory of leadership is the earliest approach to the study and explanation of leadership. First researchers tried to identify the qualities that distinguished the "great men" from the masses. The researchers believe that the leaders had a unique set of fairly stable qualities that did not change over time and distinguished them from non-leaders (Cherry). On the basis of this approach, the researchers managed to determine leadership skills, learn how to measure them and use them to identify the leaders. This approach is based on the belief that leaders are born, but never made.

Hundreds of studies have been done in this direction which gave rise to an extremely long list of identified leadership qualities. Researchers Stogdill in 1948 and Mann in 1959 tried to summarize and categorize all previously identified leadership qualities. Stogdill has concluded that the following five qualities characterize a leader:

  • mind or intellectual ability;
  • supremacy or dominance over others;
  • self-confidence;
  • activity and energy;
  • knowledge of the field.

However, these five qualities did not explain the emergence of a leader. Many people with these qualities remained followers. Mann has determined similar disappointment. Among the seven personal qualities of a leader, he identified the mind as the best predictor of the fact that its owner would be the leader. However, the practice did not confirm this. The study of leadership has continued until 2005. The most interesting result was shown by the famous American consultant Bennis, who studied 90 successful leaders and identified the following four groups of leadership qualities:

  • taking control over attention, or the ability to present the essence of the way and the goals or actions, so that it would be interesting for followers;
  • the ability to pass the value of the idea in a way that would be understood and accepted by followers;
  • the ability to build the activities with consistency to get the full trust of subordinates;
  • the ability to understand strengths and weaknesses of one’s own character in order to skillfully attract additional resources, including other people realizing own weaknesses at the same time.

The following studies led to the identification of four groups of leadership qualities: physiological, psychological, or emotional, mental or intellectual, personal and business.

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Physiological issues include such human qualities as height, weight, conformation or shape, appearance or representation, energy and state of health. Of course, there can be a link between the presence of these qualities and leadership. However, being physically taller and bigger among other persons in the group does not give any right to be a leader of this group. Examples of many people support the fact that individuals with disabilities also can grow into very influential figures (“Trait Theory of Leadership”).

Psychological qualities such as courage, independence, initiative, integrity, availability, etc. are shown in practice, mainly through the character of the person. The study of their relationship with the leadership led to a very long list of these qualities. Most of them have not received confirmation of its connection with the practice of leadership.

The study of mental qualities and their relationship with the leadership is a captivating topic for many scholars, and in general the results have shown that the level of these qualities in a leader was higher than that of a non-leader. Thus, the success of a leader depends on his or her abilities and skills to solve problems and make decisions. However, recent studies have shown that the correlation between these characteristics and leadership is quite insignificant. For example, if the average intellectual level of followers is weak than being too clever as a leader means facing many problems.

Personal business skills are mainly acquired by the leader. Most scientists consider them very important; however, their exact measurement is difficult. It has not been proved that these qualities are crucial for effective leadership. For example, business qualities that have helped someone to become a leader in the commercial bank are unlikely to be useful for a leader in the research lab or theater.

According to Ralph M. Stogdill trait theory has the following pros:

  • The fact that leadership depends upon having certain traits allows behavior modification to become more tenable in producing good leaders.
  • Knowing what general traits make a successful leader helps in identifying potential leaders.
  • The specific traits that are listed permit them to be available for quantification or correlation with validation techniques, such as brain scans.

Trait theory has a number of disadvantages. First, a list of potentially important qualities of leadership is virtually endless. For this reason, it is impossible to create true and exact portrayal of the leader. Summing up, one can say that this approach of studying leadership is undoubtedly interesting but, unfortunately, still not very helpful in practice.

3.3. The Concept of Charismatic Leadership

The concept of charismatic leadership is based on the fact that the ideal employee matches the personality of the leader. An employee is a reflection of a leader who could have an impact on the transformation of his or her values. Motivational impact of a leader is realized through the mechanism of imitation, as well as understanding and respecting the values and behavior of the leader by the group. Only a few people have the ability to influence the value of other person’s actions and change it.

Some authors of the concepts of charismatic leadership explain that leadership is not the influence of one person on another, but a group (team) process. It is based on the tendency of employees to identify themselves with the group and appreciate belonging to it. The charismatic leader raises a social identity by linking individual values of each member with group values and collective identity. Clear group identification means that a member of the group puts the needs of the group above the individual interests and even, if necessary, sacrifices the latter. This, in turn, makes collective values and norms of behavior more important.

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Such leaders may even compel the group members’ new value, but usually they emphasize the special importance of the individual values of each employee and are aimed at connecting them with their group task. For efficient accomplishment of this goal, leaders have to know and respect the needs and values or group members, and identity the traits of each member of the group. Only in this case, they can rely on the trust of the members of the group. Charisma of the leader is strengthened by his or her personal passion for the collective goals and willingness to take risks for the sake of the group achievements.

Charismatic leaders, who are building a group, whether it is a political party, a cult or a business team, will often focus strongly on making the group very clear and distinct, separating it from other groups. They will then build the image of the group, in particular in the minds of their followers, as being far superior to all others. (“Charismatic Leadership”).

Belief in one’s own competence and the ability to solve difficult problems play a central role in the concept of collective charismatic leadership. This belief has a direct impact on the individual effectiveness in the group members’ work. Moreover, individual faith in one’s own strength is based on the collective anticipation of good results from each employee and all members of the workforce. High collective self-confidence affects not only the group members, but also a leader who is willing to cooperate with the members of the group to achieve common goals. The charismatic leader is able to increase confidence among the group members for the sake of achieving success with the help of the collective efforts.

In the group with the charismatic leadership, the external stimuli are not as important as the internal motivation. The leader creates hope of "a better future" and its realization among the group members. The external reward such as high salary supports the belief in a "better future" and a sense of its realization does not serve as a priority in everyday efforts of motivating employees being only one of the final goals.

The concept of charismatic leadership is based on a number of interesting empirical studies. However, many authors consider them to be too descriptive, not sufficiently accurate, and not revealing the psychological mechanisms of charisma and the whole complex of ‘leader – follower’ relations. In real life, the most important weaknesses of this type of leadership are the excessive dependence of the group on the personality of the leader and failures in the course of work when the leader is lost.

Charismatic leadership is more often and more effectively manifested in groups with poorly structured problems lacking clearly defined strategies for the realization of organizational goals.

3.4. Situational Leadership Theory

According to Leigh Anthony, “Situational leadership refers to when the leader or manager of an organization must adjust his style to fit the development level of the followers he is trying to influence.”

Situational theory does not deny the important role of individual personality traits, but does not absolute them, giving priority to the nature of leadership in explaining the circumstances. However, central statement of the situational theory about the leading role of the situation in shaping the leadership is not fully proved. This concept is subjected to severe criticism due to the fact that it does not sufficiently reflect the activity of the leader, his ability to properly and timely evaluate and make a difference, and find an effective solution to the urgent problems.

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Some modern proponents of the theory of situational leadership try to adapt it to the realities of life through a range of additions. For instance, E. Hartley proposes to add the following provisions to the situational theory:

  • acquiring the status of a leader in certain situation does not exclude, but even increases the chances of a person to become a leader in any other situation;
  • becoming a leader in a particular situation, a person acquires an authority, which contributes to his or her appointment or election to an executive position, and thereby leadership consolidation;
  • due to the stereotyped perception of a person, the leader in a particular situation, is taken for a leader of the group in general;
  • the leaders are most often people who want to become leaders and have clear motivation.

Hartley’s additions to the situational leadership theory are largely proved in an empirical way and generally contribute to better understanding of the nature of this phenomenon.

3.5. Psychological Theories of Leadership

Nature, formation, and direction of leadership are affected by the internal motivations of a person to take managing positions. When we are talking about the subjective mechanisms of leadership, psychoanalytic explanation is needed. Freud, who is regarded as the founder of psycho-analysis, states that the heart of leadership is depressed libido, which is mostly unconscious attraction of a sexual nature. Freud’s followers interpreted libido as a psychic energy in general. In the process of sublimation (accumulation and transition to higher states), it is manifested in the desire of creativity, leadership, etc.

Many people occupying leadership positions may suppress or overcome various kinds of complexes, a sense of inferiority, etc. Being a follower of some leader is a certain psychological need. Subjective acceptance of leadership is laid in early childhood, when a child is in need of protection and the authority of parents. In this sense, the authority of the head of the organization is similar to the authority of the head of the family.

Scientists from Frankfurt School have made a significant contribution to the development of psychoanalytic explanations of leadership. They have identified the type of a person prone to authoritarianism and aspired by power. Such a person is formed in unhealthy social conditions, suffering from neurosis, frustration, oppressive tension, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. He/she has a desire to get away from it in the sphere of domination and subordination. Power becomes a psychological need for the authoritarian personality to get rid of one’s own complexes by imposing his or her will on others.

This type of behavior in the psychological sense is not a phenomenon of strength, but at the same time weakness. Authoritarian personality, not having true inner strength, tries to possess it through domination over others. This person is irrational, prone to mysticism and is guided primarily by emotion. He or she looks at other people and the world through the prism of sadomasochism.

Being a leader, authoritarian personality does not accept a democratic style of leadership, but has a tendency to extend the authority in personal relations with subordinates and violate their right. This sort of people does not care much about the interests of business or how to maintain or increase their power. Strict control is above all.

Psychoanalytic explanation of a desire to become a leader, of course, does not include all types of motivations. Most people experience psychological pleasure from the possession of power. The power itself is not their value. There are many who would prefer to avoid leadership positions, if the authorities did not offer a wide range of opportunities for all sorts of benefits: high income, prestige, privileges, etc. For them, the longing for power is instrumental in its nature, or in other words, serves to achieve other goals.

Instrumental motivation of leadership is most common in organizations. It is not equal to a desire to possess. Many leaders, especially informal, are usually guided by lofty goals in their actions, motives of moral responsibility for the common goal, establishing friendly relations in the team, etc.

4. Conclusion

Experience shows that there is no other factor providing such great benefits for the organization than effective leadership. Leaders need to establish goals and objectives for the organization, coordinate the team of workers, promote interpersonal contacts with employees and select optimal and effective solutions to various problems. It is obvious that an organization where leaders are put in the center can achieve all of this much faster than organizations without leaders.