Putting leadership into context – Part II

In the previous post we set on a learning quest to explore the main leadership concepts that have marked the twentieth century. Thus far we have discussed the great man thesis of the 19th century and touched upon the pros and cons of the first modern leadership theory that put individual innate traits and skills at the forefront of scientific scrutiny. With that, however, we have made it only half way through the twentieth century. To continue our journey, we will start this post with a closer look at a concept dominating leadership discussions in the years between 1950s and 1980s – the contingency leadership model.

In order to find patterns for theory building and offering practical advice to practitioners, researchers developed a model that was matching a leadership style to a situation. According to the contingency leadership model, there is no one best style of leadership. Rather, the effectiveness of a leader is dependent (contingent) on a specific situation. This is the result of two factors impacting behavior: consideration and initiating structure. Consideration describes a variety of behaviors related to the development, inclusion, and the good feelings of subordinates, whereas the latter describes behaviors related to defining roles, control mechanisms, task focus and overall work coordination. Situational theories were useful as an antidote to the preceding theories looking at hierarchical and authoritarian leadership styles typical of big organizations of the first half of the twentieth century, and also offered practical and straightforward advice to incipient and practicing managers. Although situational theories were initially deemed too simplistic and ambitious in what they were trying to explain, the situational perspective still forms an important basis of most leadership theories today.

Until the late 1970s, the focus of mainstream leadership literature was leadership at lower levels, while executive leadership and abilities to induce dramatic change were still largely ignored. Researchers of the day argued that transactional leadership was what was largely studied (via simplified variable models and experimental methods) and that the other highly important arena – transformational leadership – was mostly disregarded. The new emerging leadership notion claimed that leaders have a special responsibility for understanding a changing environment, they facilitate more dramatic changes, and they can energize followers far beyond what the traditional (exchange) theory would suggest.

Later on, three sub-schools developed: the transformational school emphasizing vision and overarching organizational change, the charismatic school focusing on the influence processes of individuals and the specific behaviors used to influence followers, and the entrepreneurial school urging leaders to make processes and cultural changes that would dramatically improve quality and productivity.

Although introducing new notions of leadership brought a good deal of confusion initially, it reinvigorated academic and nonacademic studies alike. In the 1980s, conventional leadership models began routinely incorporating elements of transactional and transformational leadership (transformational leaders are those who not only master transactional skills but capitalize on transformational skills as well). As a result, scientists argued that the field of leadership has broken out of its normal confinement to the study of small groups and supervisory behaviors to more studies on executives, more inclusion of perspectives from political science, and more cross-fertilization among schools of thought. Efforts to find integrative models were common also in the 1990s and 2000s.



  • Van Wart, Montgomery; Public Sector Leadership Theory: An Assessment, Public Administration Review, March/April 2003, Vol. 63, No. 2
  • Transformational Leadership. Becoming an inspirational Leader (2016, December 11). Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/transformational-leadership.htm
  • Fiedler’s Contingency Model. Matching Leadership Style to a Situation. (2016, December 11). Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fiedler.htm

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