Even though there appears to be at least some personality traits that relate to leadership ability, the most important approaches to understanding leadership take into consideration both the personality characteristics of the leader and the situation in which the leader is operating. In some cases, the situation itself is important. For instance, although Winston Churchill is now regarded as having been one of the world’s greatest political leaders ever, he was not a particularly popular figure in Great Britain prior to World War II. However, against the backdrop of the threat posed by Nazi Germany, his defiant and stubborn nature provided just the inspiration many sought. This is a classic example of how a situation can influence the perceptions of a leader’s skill. In other cases, however, both the situation and the person are critical.
One well-known person-situation approach to understanding leadership effectiveness was developed by Fred Fiedler and his colleagues (Ayman, Chemers, & Fiedler, 1995). The contingency model of leadership effectiveness is a model of leadership effectiveness that focuses on both person variables and situational variables. Fielder conceptualized the leadership style of the individual as a relatively stable personality variable and measured it by having people consider all the people they had ever worked with and describe the person that they least liked to work with (their least preferred coworker). Those who indicated that they only somewhat disliked their least preferred coworker were classified as relationship-oriented types of people, who were motivated to have close personal relationships with others. However, those who indicated that they did not like this coworker very much were classified as task-oriented types, who were motivated primarily by getting the job done.
In addition to classifying individuals according to their leadership styles, Fiedler also classified the situations in which groups had to perform their tasks, both on the basis of the task itself and on the basis of the leader’s relationship to the group members. Specifically, as shown in Figure 6.13 Fiedler thought that three aspects of the group situation were important:
- The degree to which the leader already has a good relationship with the group and the support of the group members (leader-member relations)
- The extent to which the task is structured and unambiguous (task structure)
- The leader’s level of power or support in the organization (position power)
Furthermore, Fielder believed that these factors were ordered in terms of their importance, with leader-member relationships being more important than task structure, which was in turn more important than position power. As a result, he was able to create eight levels of the “situational favorableness” of the group situation, which roughly range from most favorable to least favorable for the leader. The most favorable relationship involves good relationships, a structured task, and strong power for the leader, whereas the least favorable relationship involves poor relationships, an unstructured task, and weak leader power.
The contingency model is interactionist because it proposes that individuals with different leadership styles will differ in effectiveness in different group situations. Task-oriented leaders are expected to be most effective in situations in which the group situation is very favorable because this gives the leader the ability to move the group forward, or in situations in which the group situation is very unfavorable and in which the extreme problems of the situation require the leader to engage in decisive action. However, in the situations of moderate favorableness, which occur when there is a lack of support for the leader or when the problem to be solved is very difficult or unclear, the more relationship-oriented leader is expected to be more effective. In short, the contingency model predicts that task-oriented leaders will be most effective either when the group climate is very favorable and thus there is no need to be concerned about the group members’ feelings, or when the group climate is very unfavorable and the task-oriented leader needs to take firm control.
Still another approach to understanding leadership is based on the extent to which a group member embodies the norms of the group. The idea is that people who accept group norms and behave in accordance with them are likely to be seen as particularly good group members and therefore likely to become leaders (Hogg, 2001; Hogg & Van Knippenberg, 2003). Group members who follow group norms are seen as more trustworthy (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002) and are likely to engage in group-oriented behaviors to strengthen their leadership credentials (Platow & van Knippenberg, 2001).
- Social power can be defined as the ability of a person to create conformity, even when the people being influenced may attempt to resist those changes.
- Milgram’s studies on obedience demonstrated the remarkable extent to which the social situation and people with authority have the power to create obedience.
- One of the most influential theories of power was developed by French and Raven, who identified five different types of power—reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power, and expert power. The types vary in terms of whether their use is more likely to create public compliance or private acceptance.
- Although power can be abused by those who have it, having power also creates some positive outcomes for individuals.
- Leadership is determined by person variables, situational variables, and by the person-situation interaction. The contingency model of leadership effectiveness is an example of the last factor.
Exercises and Critical Thinking
- Write a paragraph that expresses your opinions about the Holocaust or about another example of obedience to authority. Consider how social psychological research on obedience informs your interpretation of the event.
- Imagine being a participant in Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority. Describe how you think you would react to the situation as it unfolds.
- Provide an example of someone who has each of the types of power discussed in this section.
- Consider a leader whom you have worked with in the past. What types of leadership did that person use? Were they effective?
- Choose a recent event that involved a very effective leader or one that involved a very poor one. Analyze the leadership in terms of the topics discussed in this chapter.
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