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Leadership Effectiveness

University of Washington

To the layman, leadership is something a person &dquo;has,&dquo; an

inherited or acquired trait which, therefore, remains with the

person. There is, however, very little evidence to support this

widely held belief (Stogdill, 1974). Outstanding generals do not
necessarily make outstanding research directors or chairmen of
community clubs, and effective presidents of hospital boards or
radio stations do not necessarily make outstanding sales man-
agers or tank division commanders. Whether a person is success-
ful in leadership job seems to depend as much on the situation
as on the personality and skills her or she brings to the job. For
this reason, contemporary leadership theory asks, &dquo;What kind
of people are required for the successful leadership performance
in a particular type of situation?&dquo;


Early leadership research primarily concerned itself with how

one becomes a leader. Although this article focuses on factors
that determine leadership effectiveness, a few words are in order
on the emergence of leaders.
As already mentioned, leaders who emerge in informal groups
or through the process of election cannot readily be distinguished
on the basis of their personality traits or attributes from those


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who the members of their groups. Practically everyone


performs leadership functions in some groups and organizations,

for example, chairing a committee, directing a work crew,
managing a department or office, or presiding over a meeting.
And all of usmembers of many different groups and

organizations. By and large, our personality does not determine

whether we are leaders or members of a particular group. More
often it simply depends on whether we want to be in a leadership
position and happen to have the particular knowledge, skills, or
resources the group needs at that time. A bowling team will,

therefore, choose a good bowler as its captain, and a protest

group will choose a leader who can express the group’s feelings.
Some consistent results have been found in the more than 200
studies on leadership traits. These have shown that the leaders
tend to be somewhat brighter than followers, somewhat taller,
somewhat more socially adept, and more talkative. In other
words, people who fade into the wallpaper are less likely to
become leaders than those who stand out in the crowd (Hollander,
There are also the leaders who stir our imagination, who have
the &dquo;charisma&dquo; or gift to kindle the enthusiasm of their followers
and their blind and unquestioning obedience. The three major
characteristics that distinguish these leaders are (1) the unshak-
able faith in their cause, (2) utter confidence in their invincibility
and ultimate success, and (3) the ability to communicate this faith
and confidence in simple and clear language (House, 1977). The
potential power of a charismatic leader is perhaps best illustrated
by such tragic events as the mass suicide demanded by the Rev.
Jim Jones of his followers. Whether this power necessarily
testifies to the leader’s effectiveness is a separate question.


Most leaders in our society are appointed to their positions,

and they are judged on their ability to do the organization’s work.
These appointments are usually made on the basis of the leader’s

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experience and competence in a previous or similar managerial

job or the individual’s education and training. Although the
initial research again focused on indentifying leadership traits,
these investigations showed that the effective leaders did not
differ greatly in traits and attributes from those who were
ineffective. The most that can be said is that the effective leaders
tend to be slightly more intelligent than the members of their
groups and slightly more socially competent, fndings which are
very similar to those obtained in studies of emergent leadership.
Even these few differences between effective and ineffective
leaders are too small to be of practical significance in most
selection procedures.
A number of important theories hold, nevertheless, that
individuals with a certain personality, philosophy of manage-
ment, or attitude will generally be more effective tha others, that
is, that there is an ideal type of leader. These theories are
intuitively appealing and have had a considerable influence on
modern managerial thinking.
Two of the best known theories of this type were developed by
Rensis Likert and by Douglas McGregor. Likert’s (1967) &dquo;System
4&dquo; proposed that the effective manager is participative and has an
approach to management that is based on trust and open
communication with subordinates and superiors. In a somewhat
similar vein, McGregor (1967) postulated two opposing theories
of management, called &dquo;Theory X&dquo; and &dquo;Theory Y.&dquo; Theory X
managers proceed on bureaucratic assumptions that most em-
ployees are lazy, dislike work, avoid responsibility, and are
interested primarily in their pay rather than the intrinsic enjoy-
ment of their job. Subordinates must, therefore, be closely
supervised or even driven to get their work done. The supposedly
more effective Theory Y managers believe that employees

potentially enjoy their work, that they can and wish to direct their
own activities, and they will, if permitted, contribute to the

organization in a creative and constructive manner.

Likert’s and McGregor’s theories have received an enthusiastic
response in management circles, perhaps because they appeal to
democratic values and the Horatio Alger ethos. There also have

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been isolated success stories testifying to the advantages of these

systems, but others have had less successful endings. In fact,
McGregor has described his own experience with management in
which a Theory Y approach did not work. And a similar tale was
told by Warren Bennis (1970), one of McGregor’s disciples,
suggesting that these theories do not have universal applicability.
Empirical tests have generally not supported these theories.
But if neither personality traits nor philosophical management
approaches and attitudes have identified the ideal method of
leadership, are there certain types of leader behaviors that assume
successful leadership performance? It is obvious, of course, that
leaders must communicate with their followers by word or
gesture; and it seems only reasonable to hypothesize, therefore,
that certain types of interpersonal behaviors are effective while
others are ineffective in getting the group to perform its task.
This position is best represented by the massive research on
leader behaviors conducted at Ohio State University under
the direction of Carroll Shartle in the 1940s and 1950s (Stogdill,
1974). This impressive series of studies isolated two major
behavior clusters by which subordinates described their superi-
ors. The first of these, called &dquo;structuring,&dquo; consists of such
behaviors as organizing the group interaction, assigning roles and
tasks to group members, setting and maintaining standards, and
evaluating the subordinates’ performance. The second cluster,
called &dquo;consideration,&dquo; is defined as showing concern for the
welfare and well-being of group members, involving them in the
decision-making process, listening to their opinions and sugges-
tions, and treating them as equals.
The validity of these behavior clusters is now well-established,
and similar &dquo;task&dquo; and &dquo;group maintenance&dquo; factors have been
found by other investigators. However, none of these behaviors
differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful leaders (Kor-
man, 1966). The ineffective leaders are as likely to be considerate
and structuring as are the effective leaders.
House’s (House and Mitchell, 1974) Path-Goal Theory takes a
more sophisticated approach. It specifies the conditions which

require considerate behaviors and those which require structur-

ing behaviors. The theory states that the leader must guide the

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subordinate in a path that will satisfy the needs of the subordinate

as well as contribute to the goals of the organization. When the
task is highly structured and repetitive, the leader must provide
emotional satisfaction through considerate behavior toward the
subordinate who performs well. In effect, the leader has to show
subordinates how to obtain the needed satisfactions and achieve
their won goals by effective task performance. The Path-Goal
Theory has been supported in a number of studies and provides
an important contribution to our understanding of leadership

effectiveness, although the ability of the theory to predict future

behavior has not as yet been established.
A number of leadership training methods have been based on
the finding that different leadership conditions call for different
leader behaviors. These methods attempt to teach leaders and
managers to change their behavior so that it will be appropiate for
the particular conditions under which the leader operates. The
training is, of course, based on the assumption that leaders can
readily change these deeply ingrained and overlearned behaviors
by simply willing to do so. This is somewhat like telling a manager
one day, &dquo;I want you to like and trust everybody,&dquo; and the next

day telling him or her to be an autocratic or suspicious person.

There is very little evidence that many leaders (or anyone else)
can make such changes in their interpersonal relations even if they
want to do so. Moreover, most leaders are not even aware of how
they are seen by their subordinates. Many bosses are utterly
amazed that their employees do not view them as the kindly,
gentle, patient, and paternal beings they think themselves to be.
This is borne out by a carefully controlled study (Mitchell, 1970)
which showed that leaders’ self-perceptions of their considerate
and structuring behaviors were completely unrelated to how their
subordinates saw them behaving. Nor were leaders perceived to
behave as they intended to behave (Gochman, 1975). If a leader
cannot even tell how his or her behavior is seen by subordinates, it
is difficult to see how he will be able to change his behavior in a
given way.
How, then, can we account for House’s findings that considera-
tion tends to be more effective in one situation while structuring is
more effective in another? The answer seems to be that different

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personalities respond differently in various situations. In stressful

and anxiety-producing situations, one person might tend to seek
social suport and emotional comfort while another person
becomes defensive or hostile or withdraws. A particular behavior
might then lead to successful outcomes not so much because the
leader wills it to be so, but because his or her particular
personality happens to respond to a given situation in a manner
that fits the needs of the task.
The above formulation is basic to the Contingency Model of
leadership effectiveness (Fiedler, 1964, 1967). This theory has
generated a great deal of controversy and well over 300 empirical
studies in the last 15 years. It postulates that the effectiveness of a
leader or an organization depends on two interacting factors. One
is the leader’s personality and, specifically, the degree to which the
leader is either task-motivated, having as the major goal the
accomplishment of the task, or else relationship-motivated,
having as the major goal the development of close interpersonal
The other factor in the theory is called Situational Control and
is defined as the degree to which the situation provides the leader
with power, control, and influence over the outcome. It indicates
the probability or certainty that the leader’s actions will result i
satisfactory conclusions, that is, task accomplishment and/or
good interpersonal relations. Situational control is measured by
determining the degree to which (1) the group seems loyal and
supportive, (2) the task is structured and well-defined, and (3) the
leader has position power permitting him or her to punish and
reward subordinates.
The theory predicts that task-motivated leaders will be most
successful in situations of very high or relatively low control,
whereas relationship-motivated leaders will be most successful in
situations of moderate control. These predictions are shown
graphically on Figure 1, which indicates the degree of perfor-
mance on the vertical axis and situational control on the
horizontal. The solid line represents the performance curve for
relationship-motivated leaders and the broken line for task-
motivated leaders.

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Figure 1: Graphic representation of the Contingency Model, indicating the inter-

action of the leader’s motivational structure, measured by the Least
Preferred Co-worker (LPC) scale, and situational control.

Figure 1 implies that the leader’s effectiveness can be improved

by either changing the leader’s personality to match the situation
or else by modifying situational control to match the leader’s

personality. A change in stuational control actually does affect

the performance of task- and relationship-motivated leaders
differently. This has now been shown in studies of widely varying
organizations, including school administrators, police supervi-
sors, post office managers, company executives, and military
For example, in one study of army infantry squads (Bons and
Fiedler, 1976), situational control increased for leaders who
remained with the same unit and under the same superiors for six

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to eight months. The experience with their unit and their

supervisors, as well as the on-the-job training during that time,
increased their situational control and, thus, moved them from
the moderate to the high situational control zone. As the theory
predicts, the performance of the task-motivated leaders was poor
in the moderate situational control but improved as situational
control increased. In contrast, the effectiveness of relationship-
motivated leaders was initially high but decreased as their control
Many leaders feel that they could perform better if only they
had more control, that is, a more clearly defined task, a group
which is utterly dependable, and the power to hire and fire. In
fact, however, empirical data as well as the contingency theory
indicate that this is not the case for everyone. Some people find
such high control leadership situations not sufficiently challeng-
ing and exciting.
The most common method for increasing the leader’s situa-
tional control is through training. In effect, training clarifies the
nature and the goal of the task, it provides a specific method, and
it usually gives us the means for telling how well the task is being
performed. This is essentially the Contingency Model definition
of task structure. According to the Contingency Model, an
increase in situational control, for example, by task training,
should then increase the performance of some leaders but
decrease the performance of others.
A well-controlled laboratory experiment by Chemers et al.
(1976) supports this counterintuitive hypothesis. The study
involved 32 four-man teams composed of ROTC cadets and
psychology students. Each of the teams was led either by a
relationship-motivated or a task-motivated ROTC cadet. Half of
these cadet leaders were given training on how to perform the
group task of deciphering simple coded messages, that is,
cryptograms. Training clearly made this unstructured task into a
structured task.
As indicated by appropriate ratings, the leaders in the untrained
condition were in a low control situation while those with task
training were in a moderate control situation. The Contingency

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Figure 2: Comparison of task performance by relationship-motivated and task-

motivated leaders with and without task training (from Chemers et al.,

Model predicts that task-motivated leaders should perform better

in the low control (untrained) condition while relationship-
motivated leaders should perform better in the trained (moderate
control) condition. The results supported this hypothesis (see
Figure 2). However, of even greater importance is the finding that
the task-motivated leaders without training had better perform-
ing groups than did task-motivated leaders with training. We may
infer, therefore, that leadership training in this case increased the
performance of relationship-motivated leaders but decreased the
performance of task-motivated leaders.
The studies which demonstrate that a change in situational
control changes leadership performance differently for task- and

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for relationship-motivated leaders have led to a training method

based on the Contingency Model, called LEADER MATCH
(Fiedler et al., 1976), which capitalizes on these findings. The
method assumes that it is difficult if not impossible to change
one’s leadership style or leader behavior, but that it is relatively
easy to change one’s leadership situation.
A leader can, for instance, modify leader-member relations by
becoming more or less accessible to subordinates, the leader
can change task structure by asking the boss for very detailed
instructions and clearly defined jobs or for broad and challenging
problems. The leader can increase position power by becoming a
expert in the group’s task, or acting like one of the gang, or
decrease it by participative management or relying on subordi-
nates for guidance on how the task is to be performed.
A number of well-controlled studies in military as well as
civilian organizations have tested the effectiveness of the LEADER
MATCH training program (Fiedler and Mahar, 1979b). Al-
though the training requires only from six to eight hours,
supervisory ratings obtained 2 to 12 months later showed that the
trained leaders had performed significantly and substantially
better than leaders who had been assigned to control conditions.
These findings not only provide additional support for the
Contingency Model but also show the importance of situational
factors in determining the leader’s performance.



While there have been hundreds of investigations before 1950

which attempted to relate the leader’s intellectual abilities or task-
relevant knowledge to performance, the currentjournals contain
practically no studies of this type. The main reason for this lack of
interest lies, of course, in the consistent failure of earlier research
to obtain meaningful findings. And yet, intelligence, despite
current controversies, remains the single most important person-

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ality characteristicthat has been indentified over the years. It is

very difficult to believe that it is irrelevant whether a leader is
bright or dull. Yet this is, indeed, the interpretation given to the
many findings in which the correlation between leader intelli-
gence and group or leader performance is as low as .20-.30. A
correlation of this low magnitude would permit us to predict
leader performance no more than 5% better than chance.
Findings have been obtained in studies correlating the leader’s
experience and performance and have yielded even lower correla-
tions (Fiedler, 1970). Here, again, it seem difficult to believe that
the years an individual spends on a job or in an organization will
contribute nothing that is useful in managing people. And how
can we account for the great importance personnel interviewers

give to managerial experience? There is, after all, hardly one

employment application blank that does not ask for the previous
work history, nor an interviewer who will not ask how many years
a job candidate has spent in similar types of work. And yet, such
famous leaders as Joan of Arc, William Pitt, Alexander the
Great, and others performed exceedingly well without the benefit
of much experience. There are, of course, others who seem to
improve their leadership performance as they become older and
more experienced.
If we consider this problem more closely, it seems likely that the
situation will again determine whether a person can use, or will
benefit from, intelligence or the knowledge obtained through
experience. Specifically, we need to consider the effect of inter-
personal stress between the leader and those with whom he or she
must closely interact, namely, superiors and subordinates. Al-
most everyone knows of a particular boss or teacher who can
reduce an otherwise bright individual into near imbecility. Under
these conditions, the affected individual is clearly unable &dquo;to use
his head,&dquo; that is, he is unable to utilize intellectual abilities and
A similar effect may occur in leadership situations in which
there is interpersonal stress. This problem was explored in a series
of investigations of military personnel (Fiedler et al., 1979;
Borden, 1980). These studies essentially correlated the leader’s

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intelligence and experience with performance under two contrast-

ing conditions: for groups in which the leader reported low stress
with the boss and for those in which the reported stress with boss
was high. The results were quite consistent over different studies:
When stress with boss was low, the leader’s performance
correlated with his intelligence but not with his experience; when
stress with boss was high, performance correlated with his
experience but not with his intelligence. This suggests that the use
of one’s creativity and problem-solving abilities requires a
nonthreatening, relaxed, and stress-free interpersonal environ-
ment. Under these conditions, also, leaders attempt to find new
solutions rather than relying on what they have learned in the
past. When interpersonal stress is high, the situation is too
threatening to solve problems or seek new solutions. Rather, the
leader will rely on the safe and proven behaviors and actions
learned from past experience. The more experience he has, the
more likely it is that the leader will have a correct solution in his

It is obvious from these findings that intellectual abilities and
experience do play an important part in leadership performance.
However, they contribute to performance only under certain
limited conditions. In effect, these results mean that a leader is
seen as &dquo;intelligent&dquo; or &dquo;knowledgeable&dquo; not only on the basis of
what is in his or her head but also on the basis of the situation in
which the leader happens to be working at that time. This makes
the leader’s intellectual ability, as it is seen and judged by others,
in part a characteristic of the organization and not merely a
characteristic of the individual. These studies also point out again
how important the organizational and situational factors are in
the understanding of the leader’s behavior and performance.


Most research in the leadership area is conducted in laboratory

settings, with each group seen as an independent unit. In real life,
task groups are almost invariably subunits of larger organiza-

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tions. These groups have a history as well as a future. They also

have a boss who plays a very vital and important part in the lives
of the group members but who is nearly always ignored in
laboratory studies. It is not too surprising, therefore, that none of
the major leadership theories has come out of the laboratory, nor
are the most cited leadership theorists known for their elegant

laboratory experiments (Argyris, Fiedler, Fleishman, Hollander,

House, Likert, McGregor, Stogdill, and Vroom). We simply do
not know enough about the universe in which leadership
interactions take place to build the relevant variables into our
laboratory studies.
A second point that should be noted is the preoccupation of
leadership research with affective rather than cognitive variables:
the leader’s style, motivation, attitudes, perception of others, and
relations with others. While these affective variables undoubtedly
play an important part in the leader’s behavior and performance,
we cannot afford to ignore the equally important part played by
the leader’s knowledge, ability solve problems, to learn, and to
make sound judgments. Up to now, work with these variables has
not been very rewarding. With the realization that situational
factors affect these cognitive functions, it is to be hoped that these
important variables will be restored to their rightful place in
leadership theory.
Finally, leadership is one of the very few important interper-
sonal processes that takes place in full view of group members and
those who choose to observe. This provides a rather grandstand
view for social scientists to study the complex interpersonal
behaviors in which authority and power are exercised, and which
have theoretical as well as far-reaching practical importance for
the way we live in our society.


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