You are here

Leadership as an Interaction between the Person and the Situation

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

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:

  1. The degree to which the leader already has a good relationship with the group and the support of the group members (leader-member relations)
  2. The extent to which the task is structured and unambiguous (task structure)
  3. 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.

Figure 6.13 The Contingency Model of Leadership Effectiveness 

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).

Key Takeaways

  • 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Provide an example of someone who has each of the types of power discussed in this section.
  4. Consider a leader whom you have worked with in the past. What types of leadership did that person use? Were they effective?
  5. 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.


Anderson, C., & Berdahl, J. L. (2002). The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1362–1377.

Anderson, C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2006). Power, optimism, and risk-taking. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 511–536.

Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2003). Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Press.

Ayman, R., Chemers, M. M., & Fiedler, F. (1995). The contingency model of leadership effectiveness: Its level of analysis. Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 147–167.

Bègue, L., Beauvois, J-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (2014). Personality predicts obedience in a Milgram paradigm.Journal of Personality. Accepted, not yet published.

Beyer, J. M. (1999). Taming and promoting charisma to change organizations. Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 307–330.

Blass, T. (1991). Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 398-413.

Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, 955–978.

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11.

Chemers, M. M. (2001). Leadership effectiveness: An integrative review. In M. A. Hogg & R. S. Tindale (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Group processes (pp. 376–399). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Chen, S., Lee-Chai, A. Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). Relationship orientation as a moderator of the effects of social power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(2), 173–187.

Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1998). Charismatic leadership in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cronshaw, S. F., & Lord, R. G. (1987). Effects of categorization, attribution, and encoding processes on leadership perceptions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 97–106.

Depret, E., & Fiske, S. T. (1999). Perceiving the powerful: Intriguing individuals versus threatening groups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(5), 461–480.

Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 611–628.

Driefus, C. (2007, April 3). Finding hope in knowing the universal capacity for evil. New York Times. Retrieved from

Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621–628.

French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Galinsky A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H, & Magee, J. C. (2003). From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 453–466.

Heath, T. B., McCarthy, M. S., and Mothersbaugh, D. L. (1994). Spokesperson fame and vividness effects in the context of issue-relevant thinking: The moderating role of competitive setting. Journal of Consumer Research, 20, 520–534.

Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred status as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 1–32.

Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5,184–200.

Hogg, M. A. (2010). Influence and leadership. In S. F. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1166–1207). New York, NY: Wiley.

Hogg, M. A., & van Knippenberg, D. (2003). Social identity and leadership processes in groups. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 1–52.

Judge, T, Bono, J., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review, Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765–780.

Kamins, A. M. (1989). Celebrity and non-celebrity in two-sided context. Journal of Advertising Research, 29, 34–42.

Kelman, H. (1961). Processes of opinion change. Public Opinion Quarterly, 25, 57–78.

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265–284.

Kenny, D. A., & Zaccaro, S. J. (1983). An estimate of variance due to traits in leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 68, 678–685.

Kilham, W., & Mann, L. (1974). Level of destructive obedience as a function of transmitter and executant roles in the Milgram obedience paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 692–702.

Kipnis, D. (1972). Does power corrupt? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 33–41.

Meeus, W. H., & Raaijmakers, Q. A. (1986). Administrative obedience: Carrying out orders to use psychological-administrative violence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16, 311–324.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.

Molm, L. D. (1997). Coercive power in social exchange. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Platow, M. J., & van Knippenberg, D. (2001). A social identity analysis of leadership endorsement: The effects of leader in-group prototypicality and distributive intergroup fairness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1508–1519.

Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Moorman, R. H., & Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers’ trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 1, 107–142.

Raven, B. H. (1992). A power/interaction model of interpersonal influence: French and Raven thirty years later. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7(2), 217–244.

Reicher, S. D., & Hopkins, N. (2003). On the science of the art of leadership. In D. van Knippenberg and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Leadership and power: Identity processes in groups and organizations (pp. 197–209). London, UK: Sage.

Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 1–40.

Simonton, D. K. (1988). Presidential style: Personality, biography and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 928–936.

Simonton, D. K. (1994). Greatness: Who makes history and why. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Simonton, D. K. (1995). Personality and intellectual predictors of leadership. In D. H. Saklofske et al. (Eds.), International handbook of personality and intelligence. Perspectives on individual differences (pp. 739–757). New York, NY: Plenum.

Sorrentino, R. M., & Boutillier, R. G. (1975). The effect of quantity and quality of verbal interaction on ratings of leadership ability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 403–411.

Tepper, B. J., Carr, J. C., Breaux, D. M., Geider, S., Hu, C., & Hua, W. (2009). Abusive supervision, intentions to quit, and employees’ workplace deviance: A power/dependence analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 156–167.

van Kleef, G. A., Oveis, C., van der Löwe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1315–1322.

Wilson, E. J., &. Sherrell, D. L. (1993). Source effects in communication and persuasion: A meta-analysis of effect size. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101–112.

Yukl, G. A. (2002). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Zaccaro, S. J. (2007). Trait-based perspectives of leadership. American Psychologist, 62, 6–16.