The behavioral theory of leadership posits that effective leaders engage in specific types of behavior which result in improved team performance. The focus of behavioral theories is on identifying the specific actions that effective leaders display.
This involves observing effective and ineffective leaders and then constructing a taxonomy of what effective leaders do.
A major implication of this theoretical perspective is the notion that individuals can be trained to become leaders – i.e. that leadership is a learned behavior.
The idea that individuals can be trained to become leaders is very appealing from an organization’s point of view. Effective leadership is highly valued, but yet, not always easily found.
Therefore, if it possible to simply provide people with training on how to be an effective leader, then organizations can spread those skills across the organization and improve overall performance.
Behavioral Theory of Leadership Origins
The behavioral theory of leadership stems from several developments. First, there were two dominant, and related, theories of leadership in the 20th century: the Great Man theory and trait theory.
- The Great Man theory postulated that leaders are born with a set of personality characteristics which emerge and become revealed at critical moments (Carlyle, 1841; 2013).
- The trait theory is similar in that it proposes that specific personality characteristics are possessed by effective leaders. In the 1940s and 50s, researchers began studying the personality traits of effective leaders.
Both of these perspectives have the same premise, that leadership is something that a person is born with, or not.
Unfortunately, research revealed that characteristics that were effective in some situations were not effective in others (Stogdill, 1948; Mann, 1959).
Researchers at the Ohio State University began conducting extensive studies on effective leadership as part of the Ohio State Leadership Studies, directed by Dr. Carroll L. Shartle.
Hemphill and Coons (1950) constructed the original form of the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire. Members of a leader’s team are asked to indicate the frequency with which their leader displays a specific behavior, from: always, often, occasionally, seldom, or never.
Statistical analysis of the responses identified two primary factors: consideration and initiating structure.
The consideration factor was primarily about relationships. Leaders that displayed this priority were supportive of employees, communicated well, and were concerned about their feelings (Stogdill & Coons, 1957).
The initiating structure factors was primarily about accomplishing tasks. Leaders that displayed this priority were concerned with scheduling work, planning and coordinating work-related tasks, and maintaining specific standards by adhering to procedures.
At the same time, researchers (Katz, et al. 1959) at the University of Michigan were also attempting to describe the specific behaviors of effective leaders.
This line of research is often referred to as the Michigan Leadership Studies.
This research identified two primary behavioral dimensions: job-centered behaviors and employee-member-centered behaviors.
Job-centered behaviors involved planning and coordinating work-related efforts and providing necessary resources for completing tasks. Employee-member-centered behaviors involved interpersonal relationships and being considerate of individual employees
Today, the research has resulted in the Michigan Model of Leadership from the Sanger Leadership.
Behavioral Theory of Leadership Examples
- Leadership Training at Company X: Every year, employees at this company participate in a series of leadership workshops that are designed to teach all employees how to be effective leaders.
- Career Planning: A leader that helps their staff develop a 5-year career plan is demonstrating a consideration component of leadership.
- Adhering to Tight Deadlines: In some projects, deadlines can be tight and inflexible. This requires a leadership style that is very focused on making sure the team is aware of the deadlines and makes steady progress.
- Supplying Resources: Making sure a team has the resources they need to perform their duties is part of a task-oriented leadership style.
- Mentorship: When a leader takes an employee under their wing to give them direct guidance on how to be an effective member of the team and have a long career, they are demonstrating an employee-member-centered behavior.
- Software Training: Making sure the department is equipped with the latest software and members receive adequate training is part of a task-oriented leadership style that can improve employee performance.
- Employee Satisfaction Survey: At the end of every year, employees are given a satisfaction survey to assess their attitudes towards the organization and their leaders. This stems from a company philosophy that views employees as valuable individuals that should be listened to and respected.
- Obsession with Project Management: A leader that is overly focused on keeping projects on task and making sure the team adheres to company policy may be missing an opportunity to improve employee morale and motivation.
- Performance Evaluations: A performance evaluation can be handled in different ways. One supervisor may conduct the feedback session by being highly critical of the employee and setting a tone of fear and intimidation. Another supervisor may see it as an opportunity to help each member of the team identify their strengths and weaknesses and set goals for improvement.
- Professional Development Funds: Each member of middle management is allocated a small budget to use on professional development in the manner they see fit because the company has a very employee-centered philosophy.
Behavioral Theory and the Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid
The most well-known behavioral theory of leadership was created by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton (1964). Their research led to the Managerial Grid, which is a way to portray their theory of leadership visually.
Similar to the Ohio State and Michigan analyses of leadership, Blake and Mouton also identified two different orientations of leaders: concern for production and concern for people.
According to their theory, each leader possesses varying degree of both concerns. For example, Leader X may be very concerned with tasks, but very interested in the people performing those tasks. However, Leader Y may be just the opposite. They may be very concerned about their staff, but not so much about keeping projects on schedule.
By analyzing a particular leader along these two dimensions, each concern was measured on a scale from 1-9, which led to the Managerial Grid and five behavioral styles of leadership.
The Grid has undergone some changes in terminology over the years. The previous terminology is presented in parentheses in the following descriptions.
- Accommodating Style (country club manager): This style is characterized by a high concern for people and low concern for production. This usually results in happy staff but low productivity.
- Indifferent Style (impoverished manager): This style is characterized by a leader that has low concern for both production and people. Leaders with this style are concerned about their job security, so they are reluctant to take risks.
- Sound Style (team manager): This style is characterized by both high concern for production and people. This type of leader wants their employees to feel respected and encourages teamwork and participation.
- Dictatorial Style (produce or perish manager): As the name implies, this style is characterized by a high concern for production and low concern for people. Leaders use pressure and threats of punishments to drive production, which can also result in burnout and low employee morale.
- Status Quo Style (middle-of-the-road): This style is characterized by leaders that are a little bit concerned with both people and production. They try to balance both priorities, which sounds admirable, but can lead to neither priority being accomplished.
Blake and McCanse (1991) suggested that it is possible that a given leader can exhibit behavior consistent with two styles. They identified two in particular: paternalistic and opportunistic.
The paternalistic style vacillates between being demanding and using rewards and punishments, but at the same time acting benevolent and concerned.
The opportunistic style incorporates many aspects of the original five styles. It is sometimes characterized as being manipulative and insincere, because the leader will use whatever technique is necessary.
Behavioral Theory of Leadership Applications
Because the behavioral theory of leaderships stipulates that effective leadership can be trained, there has been considerable growth in leadership training programs over the last 50+ years.
Some of the earliest academic institutions involved in leadership research, such as the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, both have extensive program options in the area of leadership and organization management.
The same can be said for any academic institution with a designated business school.
Behavioral Theory of Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses
1. Strength: Anyone can be Trained
The premise that leadership can be trained is very appealing to most organizations. Since people are the core of whether a business will be successful or not, the possibility that any and all employees can attend some training and walk out the door being an effective leader is a risk most organizations cannot afford to ignore.
2. Strength: Is Gender Neutral
Before the development of a behavioral perspective on leadership, the predominant theory was the Great Man theory. The theoretical basis of this view of leadership involved the study of historical figures that were identified as great leaders. Those figures were almost exclusively military or political leaders, which was overwhelmingly dominated by males.
However, in the modern era, behavioral theory of leadership allows for the study of both male and female leaders. The theory’s notion that any individual, regardless of gender, can be taught how to be a leader is also gender-neutral and opens the doors to all employees.
In this vein, van Emmerik et al. (2008) utilized a global database consisting of 64,000 subordinates evaluating their supervisors in 42 countries. The results found that women were more likely than men to use both consideration and initiating structure strategies.
3. Weakness: Learning is not Doing
Although anyone can attend leadership training and learn about the actions and behaviors of effective leadership, there is little guarantee that the training will actually result in people becoming leaders.
For instance, to some extent, being concerned for others is fundamentally a personality characteristic. Since it is not possible to change an individual’s personality profile, it is questionable if this component of leadership can be instilled in any individual.
4. Weakness: Lacks Cross-Cultural Application
The two primary dimensions of leadership concern found in a behavioral theory of leadership were originally derived from a Western cultural context. The main theory representing the behavioral approach, the Managerial Grid, does not incorporate cross-cultural elements into the main tenets of the theory.
Despite this theoretical limitation, researchers have examined the role of culture in leadership style. Dorfman et al. (2012) report results from over 200 studies conducted as part of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE).
To provide a very broad summary of the results, the report found that executives tended to use a leadership style consistent with their culture, and were most effective. However, the study also found that charismatic leadership was effective across cultures, whereas participative leadership was more culturally sensitive.
5. Weakness: Ignores Situational Demands
The biggest criticism of the behavioral theory of leadership is that it fails to take into account situational factors (Harrison & Harrison, 2018). Some projects may be better suited to a task-oriented styles of leadership, while another may be betters suited to a concern for people orientation.
For instance, in a school context, a principle may be in charge of a school in which a vast majority of the teachers are skilled, experienced, and motivated. This is a situation that matches a people-oriented leadership style. However, behavioral approaches do not consider the match between style and situation.
This criticism has led to the development of several other theories of leadership referred to as contingency theories, such as Fiedler’s model and Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory.
The behavioral theory of leadership is focused on identifying the overt actions of effective leaders that distinguish them from ineffective leaders.
By creating of taxonomy of behaviors linked to effective leadership, as the reasoning goes, then others can learn how to also be leaders. All they have to do is act in the same ways as effective leaders.
This is very appealing to organizations, but also turns out to not work so easily.
First of all, some of the early theories of leadership were almost exclusively based on the actions of male leaders. Secondly, leadership behaviors may be effective in some situations, but not others.
These shortcomings led to the development of contingency-based theories of leadership which take into account the dynamics of the situation.
The most effective leader is one that possesses certain inherent characteristics that are best matched to a particular situation. This more nuanced approach to leadership is the most prominent view today.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]