Connecting Leadership Theory and Practice for Today's Businesses

Understanding Current Leadership Concepts

Essay, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: A


Connecting Leadership Theory and Practice for Today’s Businesses

Heiko Filthuth

Abstract: Many of today’s leadership models derive from theories created long before the term ‘leadership’ was coined. To understand these recent models, it is important to know where they developed from. This essay considers some of the initial leadership theories and connects them with their recent followers before exploring how leadership theory is applied in today’s management practice.

Since the forming of groups at the beginning of mankind, leaders headed groups of individuals, some by choice of the group, some by personality, some took leadership by force, and others led by what they assumed to be divine right. Leadership developed over time but even the most contemporary leadership styles still bear close links with their roots. To consider the connections of today’s leadership with the initial models, the history of leadership is briefly visited, and recent theories are explained before a link between leadership theory and practice and the application of leadership is made.

A Brief History of Leadership Theory

The term “leadership” can be linked to Harvard-professor John P. Kotter (1982) who coined its todays meaning by distinguishing between leaders, to whom he attributes motivation and inspiration as well as the setting of goals, and managers with the ability to plan, organise, control, and solve problems (Kotter, 1990). Leadership is a stance of human ability and behaviour that can inspire individuals and groups (Winston, & Patterson, 2006) to act but it is also amongst those abilities that cannot be taught but need to be learned and developed (Hegele-Raih, 2004). From times long before Kotter’s publications, leadership theories have been created, some of which will be introduced in the following paragraph.

Selected Early and Recent Leadership Theories. The Great Man Theory is counted as one of the first leadership theories and assumes that leaders are born as such and rise if confronted with a situation requiring their skills (Carlyle, 1840). The Trait Theory (Allport, 1954), which evolved from the 1940’s, links leadership to certain mental, physical, or social qualities which, when existing or learned above a normal degree, enable the individual to become a leader (Weber, 1946). The Behavioural Theories contrast the Trait Theory in focussing on leaders’ behaviours rather than their characteristics, enabling an actual measurement of the performance of leaders (Lickert, 1955). The Contingency Theories, evolving in the 1960’s, argue that leadership is linked to the situation in which it is performed and that, consequently, there are multiple forms of leadership (Fiedler, 2006). Transactional Leadership Theories centre around a mutually beneficial relationship between those who lead and those who are led, requiring leaders to identify and use these motivation points (Avolio, Bass, & Jung, 1999). The Transformational Leadership Theory focusses on the leaders to change the behaviour of those they lead by inspiration and charisma rather than by rules and thus making them their true followers (Bass, 1990). Amongst the most recent models is the Authentic Leadership Theory (Luthans, Norman, & Hughes, 2006; Avolio & Gardner, 2003) which argues that self-motivation and self-development of those led can be fostered through a leader who does not need to be a perfect raw model but an authentic personality.

Leadership Evolving Over Time. From the first formal leadership models until today, leadership definitions and theories have changed. When Bogardus (1934) argued that change and leadership emerge when leaders and those led act with their individual trait, the shift was a few years later towards the leader, influencing people by persuading them to act or leading them by his/her example (Copeland, 1942). Common goals of leaders and people became an aspect of leadership (Stogdill & Coons, 1957) thereafter, although still with the hint that it is the leaders that influence people towards their goal (Stogdill, 1958), something that Seemann (1960) saw differently and included the leaders in both setting and following the directions. The shift to leaders assisting people to reach their goals (Boles & Davenport, 1975) can be considered a cornerstone for many of the latest theories including the change from pushing, ordering, and manipulating people towards pulling from the front, challenging those led, and using their intrinsic motives (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Finally, Kotter, in his book Leading Change (1996), points out the importance of a vision and good communication to motivate and inspire people in any leadership model, forming a base for several of the recent leadership theories.

Recent Leadership Theories. This paragraph considers nine theories that have emerged over the last 15 years and have been given the name of a leadership theory. The list is by no means complete. Each theory is assigned to one of the four major theory groups of Trait Theories, Behavioural Theories, Contingency Theories, and Power-Influence Theories, depending on the predominate stance, although in several cases alternative and additional alignments could be made. Each theory is briefly explained and considered with some of its strengths and weaknesses.

Recent Leadership Theories aligned to Traits Theories: (1) Authentic Leadership Theory (George, 2003): The visible or perceived honesty and/or example of the leader triggers those who are led to follow. Strengths: enduring and involving, particularly for organisations with single leaders. Weaknesses: cannot be trained, difficult to synchronise among leaders, vulnerable when leaders change. (2) Neo-charismatic Leadership Theory (Yukl, 2006): The charisma and social alignment of the leader motivates those led to follow him/her. Strengths: clear and definitive, thrilling, particularly suitable for owner-leaders. Weaknesses: might need managerial assistance for organisation, other opinions irrelevant, no involvement in decisions.

Recent Leadership Theories aligned to Behavioural Theories: (3) Implicit Leadership Theory (Fishbein & Lord, 2004): The perceptions of those led towards their leader result in leadership. Strengths: the leader’s personality and behaviour really matter, very suitable for authentic leaders. Weaknesses: perceptions can be manipulated, needs extreme attention to maintain working. (4) Responsible Leadership Theory (Pless, 2007): Acceptable and sustainable results and effects for equally leaders and those led form a value-based leadership. Strengths: very democratic, triggers intrinsic motivation, fair, particularly suitable for (non-profit) organisations. Weaknesses: difficult to steer, businesses might need stronger models. (5) Ethical Leadership Theory (Brown, Trevino, & Harrison, 2005): The awareness, respect, and communication of the leader leads to his/her acceptance and followership of those led. Strengths: very involving and participative, very honest, suitable for certain organisations more than for all types of businesses. Weaknesses: needs full authenticity of the leaders, requires holistic approach, requires good communication. (6) Entrepreneurial Leadership Theory (Kempster & Cope, 2010): A combination of the entrepreneur’s skills, behaviour, and performance leads to his/her acceptance as a leader. Strengths: suits many types of entrepreneurs, even those without leader skills. Weaknesses: might need change with maturity and growth of organisation.

Recent Leadership Theories aligned to Contingency Theories: (7) Complexity Leadership Theory (Uhl-Bien & Marion 2008): Leadership is exercised through any interaction in a network of complex and unpredictable feedbacks. Strengths: flexibly by nature, involving, can adopt to all situations. Weaknesses: difficult to manage, can drift away from corporate or organisation interests. (8) Shared Leadership Theory (Pearce, Conger, & Locke, 2008), Distributed Leadership Theory (Gronn, 2000), and Collective Leadership Theory (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009): Leadership is exercised as a group activity in which teams and team members lead each in a network of relationships and social collaboration. Strengths: very participative, high level of integration, distribution of risks of individual leadership mistakes. Weaknesses: difficult to manage and to synchronise between individuals towards a common goal, requires very good communication.

Recent Leadership Theories aligned to Power-Influence Theories: (9) E-Leadership Theory (Avolio & Kahai, 2002): Leadership happens through social influence, technology is used to communicate, leadership and feedback happen electronically. Strengths: fast, unbiased, can moderate leader’s traits. Weaknesses: communication through personal interaction missing, reduced level of perception.

How Early and Recent Theories Connect. Considering the early and the more recent leadership theories shows a logical string of development (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009): From initial observations of events, the physically or mentally strongest is the leader (Great Man Theory), to applying scientific methods to understand who leads (Trait Theory), to exploring why leading is happening (Behavioural Theory) and recognising that leadership can depend on the situation (Contingency Theory) evolve the recent models focussing more on those led (Transactional and Transformational Theories) and a model of honesty and responsibility of those leading (Authentic Leadership Theory). Connections between these theories, apart from one building onto the other, can be made manifold. The idea of a strong leader can be routed throughout all theories, just that the definition of strong changes. Trait and Contingency Theories connect in relating leadership to a situation whereas Behavioural, Transactional, and Transformational Theories share the element of triggering and using change. The Authentic Leadership Theories pick-up again the initial idea of the strong leader with the stance of his/her authenticity rather than pure power. Besides the links between the different theories, all of them still have a value in today’s context, as the following paragraph will show.

Historical Theories in a Current Context. From today’s point of view, although some of the previously mentioned theories may seem far away, every single one still has its relevance. The Great Man Theory still shines through e.g. in political elections in which often the physically and apparently strongest competitor gets the most votes from a population. When (chief) executives are employed, assessment centres are often used to assess their abilities and social qualities which reflects some of the Trait Theory ideas. In interim management situations, as one example, elements of the Behavioural Theory play an important role since individuals are selected for their competence in relation to a very specific situation. And the Contingency Theory is clearly at work when considering the typical head of a mid-size company who has to fulfil several roles in one person and needs to amend his leadership style accordingly to match to the different situations and recipients.

Connecting Leadership Theory and Practice

The history of leadership theory identified six historical leadership theories ranging from the Great Man Theory (Carlyle, 1841), which basically put in words what leadership has been since the beginning of mankind, to Transactional Leadership (Avolio, Bass, & Jung, 1999) and Transformational Leadership (Bass, 1990), both of whom were created in the late 20th century. Within these early theories, a string of development became visible starting with the Great Man Theory of born leaders with visual or divine strengths and rights. This evolved into the Trait Theory (Allport, 1954), taking into consideration that certain abilities make leaders what they are, and into the Behavioural Theory (Lickert, 1955) which recognises the importance of not just how leaders are but also how they act. This basket of traits and behaviours triggered thinking about leadership being different depending on the situation of execution – the Contingency Theory (Fiedler, 2006). Alongside political, economic, and social changes the involvement of those who are led came into focus with the Transactional and the Transformational leadership, both of whom recognise the relationship between the leader and those led. Where Transactional Leadership recognised the leader to use the motivation of those led for his purposes, Transformational Leadership strived to influence this motivation by inspiration from the leader. The recognition that all theories are connected along with the finding that all theories are still valid formed the conclusion on leadership history.

Recent leadership theories recognise the relation between leadership theory development and political, social, and economic changes as well as the relationship of leadership theories with the western cultural context. Nine theories were considered above, all of which emerged in the last fifteen years and some are yet only explained rudimentary in literature and may not even be connected to one common basic academic source. Authentic Leadership (Luthans, Norman, & Hughes, 2006) puts the realness of the leader first, underlining the difference of leaders and managers (Kotter, 1990) in which the first is the individual personality and behaves accordingly and the latter is a trained professional. The alignment to social issues is a feature of Neo-Charismatic Leadership (Yukl, 2006) and can be closely related to Authentic Leadership. Amongst the recent behavioural theories are those of Implicit Leadership (Fishbein & Lord, 2004) which works from employees’ perceptions on the leader, the closely related Responsible Leadership (Pless, 2007) and Ethical Leadership (Brown, Trevino, & Harrison, 2005), both recognising consciousness and respect for people and the environment as core leadership elements, and the Entrepreneurial Leadership (Kempster & Cope, 2010) which lives from the personality and behaviour of the individual entrepreneur. Among the very recent theories are those that see networks of leadership such as Complexity Leadership (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2008) and the very similar Shared Leadership (Pearce, Conger, & Locke, 2008), Distributed Leadership, and Collective Leadership theories. Also newly emerging appears to be e-Leadership (Avolio & Kahai, 2002) which takes the mode of communication (electronic) and the influences therefrom into consideration, concluding that leadership theory is and remains an ongoing and continuously developing process.

Connecting Early and Recent Leadership Theories. Early and recent leadership theories do connect in multiple ways. In this section, the three earliest theories, the Great Man Theory, the Trait Theory, and the Behavioural Theory are connected to the nine most recent leadership theories of Authentic Leadership, Neo-Charismatic Leadership, Implicit Leadership, Responsible Leadership, Ethical Leadership, Entrepreneurial Leadership, Complexity Leadership, Shared Leadership, and e-Leadership.

The born leader, a strong individual with outstanding features, the Great Man, stands for a leadership model that may be morally rejected (Ferguson, 2009) from today’s point of view. Politically, it is, however, very present in its very original form (Bell, 2017) once we leave the liberalised western cultural scope and move towards regions and cultures which are much more autocratic. Out of the selected recent leadership theories, particularly the Entrepreneurial Leadership carries obvious elements of the Great Man Theory: The Entrepreneurial Leadership theory recognises that people follow the entrepreneur as a leader for his (or her) skills, performance, behaviour, example – and for his personality (Raich, Pechlaner, & Hinterhuber, 2008). It is the individual, the entrepreneur, which is followed for whom he/she is - the entrepreneur and along with that for the inspiration and other elements that he brings (Spurrell, 2017). Other leadership theories, too, have elements of the Great Man Theory as, ultimately, all leadership goes back to the leading individual which is found in the Great Man. What has changed, however, is the reason for his/her leading which developed from a “because that’s the way it is” in the Great Man Theory to a leading for traits or behaviours in the more recent models.

The abilities of the leader are in the centre of the Trait Theory, he or she leads because he/she has certain capacities which make him/her the leader. Considering this theory from today’s point of view shows several examples: Managers who are successful independent of the industry they are working in, and politicians who lead very different departments without specialist knowledge are just two examples. In all cases it is the traits, not the behaviour, that distinguished the leading individual. With regards to the recent leadership theories, particularly Authentic Leadership and Neo-Charismatic Leadership contain elements of the Trait Theory (Northouse, 2013). The individual leader with his/her specific features that make him/her authentic and the appeal from an exposed leader are just two examples.

The Behavioural Theory ranks around what leaders do that makes them be accepted and thus is of particular importance to today’s leadership thinking (Higgs, 2003) along with its strong stance towards Contingency Leadership (Fiedler, 2006) and change management (Nadler & Tushman, 1990). The leader behaves and acts, trained or by nature, in a way that he is recognised as the head. Particularly the distinction made by Kotter (1999) between leaders and managers is a surrounding, in which trained managerial behaviour plays an important role today. Thus, it connects with Implicit Leadership, which bases on the assumption of a leader’s particular behaviour (amongst others, of course), and it matches Responsible Leadership and Ethical Leadership, both of which require a leader with a certain stance of behaviour (conscious, ethical, sustainable, respectful etc.).

If the Complexity Leadership theory were to be connected to one of the mentioned early leadership theories, it might be as a development from the Behavioural Theory through the Contingency Theory. Once the behaviour has been recognised as a central element of leadership, its amendment to the situation is a logical next step of development (Bass & Bass, 2009) which eventually can lead to the network of relations that mark Complexity Leadership and, as a further expansion to the distributed and collective collaboration of Shared Leadership. These few examples show how early and recent leadership theories connect and thus underline the ongoing development which will be explicated later in this assignment.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Connecting Leadership Theory and Practice for Today's Businesses
Understanding Current Leadership Concepts
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ISBN (Book)
Contemporary leadeship, origin of leadership, recent leadership models, connecting initial and contemporary leadership theories
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Heiko Filthuth (Author), 2018, Connecting Leadership Theory and Practice for Today's Businesses, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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