Using the Repertory Grid Technique to Identify a Good Leader? Implications for Leading Organisations

Essay, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: Distinction / 1,5


Table of Contents


The Ambiguity of the term ‘leadership’

The Repertory Grid Technique
Introducing the Repertory Grid Technique
Applying the Repertory Grid Technique
Conclusion of the Repertory Grid Technique

Discussion of the findings in context of leading an organisation
Re-thinking the grid
Critique of the re-thought model
Conclusion of the discussion

Lists of Tables and Figures

Table 1: “Common Leadership Approaches and their focuses”

Table 2: “Trait Approaches”

Table 3: “List of Elements”

Figure 1: “Original Repertory Grid”

Figure 2: “Repertory Grid of Follower 1”

Figure 3: "Repertory Matrix"


The findings of this essay will demonstrate the complex nature of leadership and the ambiguous understanding of the topic. The shortcomings of the Repertory Grid will illustrate why leadership as an academic subject is too complex to be elicited with a single theory, how ambiguity causes bias in the research, and how it causes problems in an organisational context. A subsequent discussion on the Repertory Grid will present a re-thought model as an approach to partly overcome the limitations of the original model. The failure of this approach will be the basis to argue that it might be necessary for organisations to re-think their idea of ‘leadership’.

The Ambiguity of the term ‘leadership’

This paragraph will indicate the various approaches of Leadership Studies and will argue that its complexity is partly attributable to the vague definition of the term ‘leadership’.

It goes without saying that Leadership Theory and the definition of the term ‘leadership’ highly correlate. The understanding of the term influences and shapes theorists’ approaches and vice versa. Therefore, over time a variety of approaches to Leadership Theory have been developed (Bass and Stogdill, 1990; Northouse, 2013). Table 1 gives an infinite overview of common leadership approaches and their focuses.

Table1: “Common Leadership Approaches and their focuses”

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Bass and Stogdill, 1990; Northouse, 2013

The approaches listed in Table 1 indicate, that they cannot be based on the same definition of ‘leadership’, as some theories focus on a set of characteristics, while others see leadership as a process between leader and followers. Northouse (2013) claims that 21st Century’s scholars agree on the impossibility to find a standard definition of ‘leadership’. The vague definition of the term causes an incoherence in the understanding of leadership, which in turn causes complexity in the academic field. Table 1 gave an overview of the different approaches to Leadership Theory, whereas Table 2 will provide an overview of the divergence within the findings of one[1] of these approaches.

Table2: “Trait Approaches”

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Source: Northouse 2013 p.23

Table 2 lists the results of six decades in research of leadership traits. The divergence in the findings is partly attributable to the research method, but also reflects the equivocal understanding of the term ‘leadership’ by the research subjects. Northouse (2013) critics that “[…] over the past 100 years, the findings from these studies have been ambiguous and uncertain at times.” (Northouse, 2013, p.30). Rost and Burns (1991) argue a similar way: “The […] problem with leadership studies as an academic discipline […] is that neither the scholars nor the practitioners have been able to define leadership with precision, accuracy, and conciseness […].” (Rost and Burns, 1991, p. 6.). Following the above-given argumentation on the ambiguity of leadership as well as the work of Rost and Bruns (1991) and Northouse (2013), it shall be noted:

Finding 1: ‘leadership’ is an ambiguous term, which causes complexity and problems in leadership studies.

The Repertory Grid Technique

This paragraph will introduce the Repertory Grid Technique and argue that the method is not useful to identify generalities of leadership. While applying the technique, it will be demonstrated that findings will be multiple biased and therefore this paragraph will not include any characteristics of leadership found by the author.

Introducing the Repertory Grid Technique

The Repertory Grid Technique is rooted in the work of psychologist G.A. Kelly. Kelly (1955, 1963) argues that people create their personal system of constructs with which they experience their reality. In his words: “Man looks at his world through transparent patterns or templates which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed.” (Kelly, 1963, pp. 8-9). To illustrate the technique of the grid, this essay refers to a simplified view[2] of constructs as a person’s bi-polar view on the characteristics of a family of elements (Kelly 1955, 1966; Ryle, 1975; Fransella and Bannister, 1977). An element can theoretically be any entity, which fulfils the following two criteria. The element must “represent the domain in which construing is to be investigated” (Beail, 1985, p. 3). In other words, if ‘leadership’ is the domain of investigation, the elements of the grid should be widely accepted leaders, rather than using a friend or family member as an element of investigation. Secondly, the elements should provide repeatable outcomes (Mitsos, 1958). In other words, if the characteristics of a leader are the domain of investigation, ‘Angela Merkel’ should be the element, rather than ‘German Chancellor’, as the element ‘German Chancellor’ can change over time, whereas the element ‘Angela Merkel’ is more consistent. Table 3 lists the elements chosen by the author to carry out a grid exercise on leadership.

Table3: “List of Elements”

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At this stage, it can be argued that the selected elements fulfil the above-mentioned criteria of representing the domain ‘leadership’ and will provide repeatable outcomes. Nevertheless, it must be criticised that the elements are randomly chosen and that the sample size of five cannot supply significant data regarding the amount of elements in the domain ‘leadership’, which theoretically could have been selected. For later argumentation of this essay, it shall be noted:

Finding 2: The choice of elements is biased by the person constructing the repertory grid and therefore influences the outcome of the research.

To further exercise the repertory grid, elicitation of the constructs is required. As mentioned above, this essay refers to the view of constructs as a person’s bi-polar view on the characteristics of a family of elements. Kelly (1955) outlines six different ways to build a construct. For the cause of the grid exercise in this essay, the author refers to the ‘Sequential Form’ described by Fransella and Bannister (1977), referencing the work of Kelly (1955)[3]. Thereby, every combination of three elements is presented, and it is “asked to specify some important way in which two of them are alike and thereby different from the third” (Fransella and Bannister, 1977, p.14). Using this way of elicitation, it has to be critically evaluated what the meaning of an ‘important way’ is. Applying the method to the triad Angela Merkel, Jack Ma, Kim Jong-un, it can be found that two elements are ‘black haired’, while one is ‘not black haired’. This construct is likely to be rejected by researchers, whereas ‘male’ – ‘female’ is an arguable construct. The findings of Mann (1959) as well as the work of Lord, DeVader and Alliger (1986), as shown in Table 2, present ‘masculinity’ as a leadership trait. From a feminist perspective, the leadership qualities are not connected to that person’s sex (Dawley, Hoffman & Smith, 2004). This example illustrates that, due to an individual’s decision of what is ‘important’ and what is not, the outcome of the grid is biased. Another problem illustrated by this example, is the dichotomous articulation of the scale (Millis and Niemeier, 1990; Riemann, 1990). The bi-polar scale of the first construct was set to be ‘black haired’ – ‘not black haired’. It could also be thought of to be ‘black haired’ – ‘blond haired’, which, regardless of its rejection, would bias the outcome of the grid (Bonarius et al., 1984). The same applies to ‘male’ – ‘female’ instead of ‘male’ – ‘not male’ or ‘female’ – ‘not female’. This example presents the shortcomings of the elicitation of the constructs. Therefore, it should be noted.

Finding 3: The elicitation of constructs is double biased by the person creating the Repertory Grid, as he or she decides what is ‘important’ and how the scale is labelled

Applying the Repertory Grid Technique

As the Findings 1, 2 and 3 already demonstrate the bias and subjectivity involved in the construction of the grid. At this stage, it should be clear to the reader that the following grid would only represent the author’s biased opinion on ‘important’ leadership characteristics of the chosen elements. Hence, they will not be outlined in this essay. Still, as an illustration of the method, the grid shall be constructed as following: Out of the variety of different grids, which are in use (Fransella and Bannister, 1977), this essay refers to the Rating-Grid described by Hjelle and Ziegler (1976). As mentioned above, the constructs will be elicited using the ‘Sequential Form’ on the elements listed in Table 3. The constructs are rated for each leader on a scale of 1 to 10.

Figure1: “Original Repertory Grid”

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Adaption of (Hjelle and Ziegler, 1976) as found in (Fransella and Bannister, 1977, p. 41)

To present the outcome of the grid correctly, it must be read in a way like this: The Author identified Angela Merkel, Jack Ma, Joe Dunford, Geoffrey Canada and Kim Jong-un as leaders and found constructs 1 - 6 to be vital characteristics of leadership. He thinks Angela Merkel is to be rated 10 out of 10 on the construct 1, on a scale, which he primarily defined himself.

Whether one agrees with the author’s opinion or not, the scientific value of this grid, to gain insight into the studies of leadership, has to be dined. Thus, it shall be noted:

Finding 4: In consideration of the findings 1, 2 and 3 it can be concluded that the repertory grid is not useful to identify generalities of leadership

Conclusion of the Repertory Grid Technique

It was found that the grid is not suitable to give general insight into the understanding of leadership. The argumentation is based on the method’s inherent bias as highlighted in the findings 1, 2 and 3. In more detailed words, while selecting the ‘elements’ of the grid, a person can only refer to his/her knowledge base. To be selected as an ‘element’, a ‘leader’ must be known and be acknowledged by the researcher. The same logic applies to the ‘constructs’. To be listed in the grid, characteristics must be identified as leadership characteristics[4] beforehand. This leads to a paradox. The scholar must know who a leader is and what characteristics a leader has before the research on leadership can take place. Another shortcoming of the method is the definition of the scale of the constructs. To implement a scale into a grid it must be bi-polar. Therefore, the method does not allow the inclusion of complex constructs in an appropriate way. A further problem related to the definition of the scale is its articulation. Scales are bounded by the precession and language[5] of the researcher. Finally, due to its 2-dimensional format, the grid implies that constructs are static. A leader has or has not a certain characteristic, but it is not possible to represent leadership as something dynamic. - Does the leader have the characteristic in every situation and show it equally to every follower? - As there is no determining variable in the grid, ideas such as the Situational Approach or Leader-Member Exchange Theory are not representable.


[1] As an example this essay will focus on the trait approach, but similar effects, of divergent findings caused by the vague definition of the term ‘leadership’, can be found in other approaches as well (Bass and Stogdill, 1990; Rost and Burns 1991; Northouse, 2013)

[2] For further details on the psychologists idea of constructs and the methods to identify those please refer to Kelly (1955 , 1963), Ryle (1975) or Fransella and Bannister, (1977)

[3] A description of the method can be found in (Fransella and Bannister 1977, pp. 11 - 22). For further understanding of the nature of personal constructs refer to (Kelly, 1963, pp. 105- 183)

[4] Or traits / skills / behaviour

[5] A translated grid is likely to come up with different findings as the translated scales might have slightly different meanings in the source language.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Using the Repertory Grid Technique to Identify a Good Leader? Implications for Leading Organisations
University of Bristol
Distinction / 1,5
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Leadership, Repertory Grid, Repertory Grid Technique, University of Bristol, Studying Management, Leadership Characteristics
Quote paper
Malte Eilbracht (Author), 2016, Using the Repertory Grid Technique to Identify a Good Leader? Implications for Leading Organisations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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