Characteristics of Contemporary Theoretical Approaches in Leadership Research

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Abstract

The focus on more recent theories more or less necessarily means to neglect classical leadership approaches, such as the trait approach, the behavior or style approach, and the situational leadership approach. These theories are criticized for their determined and narrow perspective, which fails to cover leadership reality. Classical approaches assume that there is a unidirectional personal influence of the leader on the followers. Leaders are traditionally seen as having a particular personality with traits different from those of followers. They are conceptualized as active players in the process of leadership. In contrast, followers are regarded as passive and reactive. Additionally, leadership relations in the context of a formal hierarchy are usually understood as situations that are socially predetermined. That means it is always clearly defined who is the supervisor/leader and who is the follower and, consequently, who has power and who does not. A last point of criticism addresses the lack of empirical evidence (e.g., Bryman 1996, 1999; Heller 2002). For example, classical leadership research failed to provide clear empirical evidence for the influence of traits on the emergence of leadership or leadership effectiveness as the result of a certain type of behavior. Following these critical reflections it becomes obvious that it is not sufficient to explain leadership by just concentrating on individual characteristics or patterns of leader behavior that might vary with situational differences. According to a statement expressed by Chemers (1997) some 10 years ago, it can be summarized that 50 years of leadership research have shown that simple answers, which emphasize the universal validity of characteristics, behaviors, or styles, are not suitable for explaining the dynamics of the leadership process (see also Yukl 1994, 2006).