1930s – Trait and Behavioural Theories

By the 1930’s psychology was beginning to be recognised as a useful discipline for understanding people and understanding differences. Early psychometric assessments emerge.

We see the emergence of Trait Theories.

The trait approach to understanding leadership assumes that certain physical, social, and personal characteristics are inherent in leaders. Sets of traits and characteristics are identified to assist in selecting the right people to become leaders.

  • Physical traits include being young to middle-aged, energetic, tall, and handsome.
  • Ability traits seek to correlate ability with leadership potential.
  • Social characteristics include being charismatic, charming, tactful, popular, cooperative, and diplomatic.
  • Personality traits include being self-confident, adaptable, assertive, and emotionally stable.
  • Task-related characteristics include being driven to excel, accepting of responsibility, having initiative, and being results-oriented.

Study after study sought to analyse traits and their relationship with leadership – without success. Some did indicate that leaders might be more intelligent that the average person and perhaps slightly taller – what Napoleon might have made of the latter would have been interesting.

Trait theories have, in recent times, been supplanted by behavioural theories. Evidence for traits is sparse although the idea remains popular in some areas.

The 1950s saw an explosion of Behavioural Theories and derivatives of these. These looked at leadership from the perspective of behaviours. It coincides with the emergence of behaviour orientated psychometrics (e.g. based on the Big 5 factors). These have the advantage of being observable – we can all see and recognise behaviour and its different forms.

Many of these theories became pre-occupied with a notion that leaders fell into two broad groups – those that were focused on the task and those who were focused on people. That would, in time, lead to understanding leadership style.

Important groups Behavioural Theories include;

Pull Theory

This theory emphasises the leader as being responsible for ‘pulling’ the team or followers forward. It consists of four elements for which the leader is responsible. These are:

  • Vision – Pointing the way forward. Producing a picture of what is possible and attainable.
  • Communication – Sharing the Vision and Strategy. Ensuring that everyone understands the vision and understands it.
  • Positioning – Building Trust & Commitment. Creating belief that the leader has a legitimate view and is dedicated to the task.
  • Role modelling – Demonstrating Self-worth and prepared to improve own performance. Practising what they preach.

Originally proposed by Warren Bennis, modern behavioural models such as Covey’s 7 Habits carry echoes of this concept.

Transactional Theories

This starts with the idea that followers agree to obey their leader totally when they take on a job: the “transaction” is (usually) that the organisation pays a “reward” to the team members in return for their effort and compliance. You have a right to “punish” the team members if their work doesn’t meet the pre-determined standard.

The terms “reward” and “punishment” are used in their widest meaning.

Followers can do little to improve their job satisfaction under Transactional leadership. The leader could give team members some control of their income/reward by using incentives that encourage even higher standards or greater productivity. Alternatively a Transactional leader could practice “management by exception”, whereby, rather than rewarding better work, he or she would take corrective action if the required standards were not met.

One important and useful development in this area has been Leader Member Exchange Theory

The exchange-model proposed by Dansereau, concentrates on how each individual leader-member exchange affects the followers job performance, rather than looking at the performance of the group as a whole.

This approach also implies that in order to improve leader effectiveness one should try to improve the quality of the individual leader-member relations.  Attempts to train leaders to do this have often been very successful. The focus is on the two-way interaction between the leader and the member of the team.

In the next post in the series we will look at how things moved on the in the 1960s and 1970s with specific “commercial models” emerging.

By Doug Strycharczyk, CEO- AQR International doug-clear

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