What is the concept of leadership in the field of social psychology?


Much of the behavior of individuals is shaped and influenced by other people. Someone who has relatively more influence over others—for better or worse—can be called a leader. This influence can arise naturally through personal interactions, or it may be attributed to a structuring of relationships whereby one person is designated as having power over, or responsibility for, the others.

Consideration Versus Initiating Structure

In general, theories of leadership make a distinction between two broad types of behavior. One type, often called consideration, revolves around the leader’s relationship with the group members. The leader who exhibits this type of behavior shows warmth, trust, respect, and concern for the group members. Communication between the leader and the group is two-way, and group members are encouraged to participate in decision making. The second type of leader behavior concerns initiating structure. This construct refers to a direct focus on performance goals. The leader who is high in initiating structure defines roles, assigns tasks, plans work, and pushes for achievement.

Over the years, theorists differed in their views on the optimal mix of consideration and initiating structure in their conceptions of the ideal leader. Those advocating a human-relations approach saw leadership success resulting from high consideration and low initiating structure. Others, however, argued for the intuitive appeal of a leader being high on both dimensions. Research soon revealed that there was no single best combination for every leader in every position.

Contingency Theory

One approach to the study of leadership, Fred Fiedler’s contingency theory, is founded on the assumption that effective leadership depends on the circumstances. Every leader is assumed to have either a work focus or a worker focus. This is measured by the “least-preferred coworker” scale. By asking people a series of questions about the person with whom they have worked least well, the procedure permits an evaluation of the degree to which one can keep work and relationships separate.

Three characteristics of a situation are deemed important in determining which style will work best. First and most important is the quality of the relations between the leader and members of the group. To assess leader-member relations, a leader is asked to use a five-point scale to indicate extent of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “My subordinates give me a good deal of help and support in getting the job done.” After scoring the leader’s responses to such items, the leader-member relations are characterized as “good” or “poor.”

The second most important feature of a situation is the amount of task structure. A situation is classified as “high” or “low” depending on the leader’s rating of the frequency with which various statements are true. The statements ask whether there is a quantitative evaluation of the task, whether roles are clearly defined, whether there are specific goals, whether it is obvious when the task is finished, and whether formal procedures have been established.

According to contingency theory, the third—and least important—characteristic of a situation is the degree of power inherent in the leader’s position. Position power is assessed by asking questions such as whether the leader can affect the promotion or firing of subordinates and if the leader has the necessary knowledge for assigning tasks to subordinates. As with the other features, there are two types of position power, strong or weak.

In summary, there are eight possible types of situations, according to contingency theory: every possible combination of leader-member relations (good vs. poor), task structure (high vs. low), and position power (strong vs. weak). These eight combinations vary along a continuum from high situational control (good leader-member relations, high task structure, and strong position power) to low situational control (poor leader-member relations, low task structure, and weak position power). Fiedler notes that the match between situation and leader orientation is critical for effective leadership. He recommends an emphasis on task performance in the three situations with the highest situational control and in the one with extremely low situational control. For the remaining four situations, the theory suggests that a group will perform best if the leader has an employee-oriented style and is motivated by relationships rather than by task performance.

Transformational Leaders

Using an alternative perspective, Bernard Bass conceptualizes leadership as a transaction between followers and their leader. He sees most leadership as characterized by recognizing what followers want and trying to see that they get what they want—assuming that the followers’ behavior warrants it. In short, the leader and followers exchange rewards and promises of rewards for the followers’ cooperation. A minority of leaders are able to motivate their followers to accomplish more than they originally expected to accomplish. This type of leader is called “transformational.” A transformational leader affirms the followers’ beliefs about the values of outcomes; moves followers to consider the interests of the team, organization, or nation above their own self-interests; and raises the level of needs that followers want to satisfy. Among those who may be called transformational leaders are Alfred Sloan, for his reformation of General Motors; Henry Ford, for revolutionizing US industry; and Lee Iacocca, for revitalizing the Chrysler Corporation. Although transformational leadership has been found in a wide variety of settings, the research on its effectiveness has been almost exclusively conducted by Bass and his colleagues.

Gender and Cultural Differences in Leadership

There has been much speculation about the differences between men and women in their leadership abilities. Psychologists examine these differences by performing controlled studies. In two field studies of leadership in the United States Military Academy at West Point, Robert Rice, Debra Instone, and Jerome Adams asked participants (freshmen) in a training program to evaluate their squad leaders (juniors and seniors). The program consisted of two parts. First there was a six-week period of basic training covering military protocol, tradition, and skill (such as weapon use and marching). The second part was a field training program covering combat-oriented tasks (such as fabricating bridges, driving tanks, directing artillery fire, and conducting reconnaissance exercises). About 10 percent of the leaders in each program were women. The participants’ responses on questionnaires showed the men and women to be comparable in terms of their success as leaders and in the nature of their leadership styles. This conclusion is in agreement with the observations of real operational leadership roles at the academy.

Although sex differences in leadership effectiveness appear to be minimal, there appear to be other group characteristics that are important determinants of leadership behavior. For example, in 1981 Frank Heller and Bernhard Wilpert reported different influence styles for managers from different countries. They determined the extent to which senior and subordinate managers involved group members in decisions. At one extreme, managers made decisions without explanation or discussion. At the other extreme of influence, they delegated decisions, giving subordinates complete control. Their data indicated that participation was emphasized in nations such as Sweden and France, but not in Israel. The United States was somewhere in the middle.

Leadership Style Research

Regardless of the extent to which there are differences among various groups of people, it is clear that there remain individual differences in leadership style. What are the implications for attempts to improve leadership effectiveness if there is no single best leadership style for all situations? One approach is to select the leader who exhibits those characteristics that are most appropriate for the situation.

Another approach, promoted by Fiedler and colleagues, is to engineer the situation to match the characteristics of the leader. That is, people cannot change the extent of task performance or employee orientation in their leadership styles, but they can change the characteristics of their situations. The program to accomplish this uses a self-taught learning process. First the person fills out a questionnaire designed to assess leadership style. Then the characteristics of that individual’s situation, leader-member relations, task structure, and position power are measured. Finally, the person is taught to change the situation to mesh with his or her personality. This might involve such tactics as influencing the supervisor to alter position power or redesigning work to modify task structure. A test of this process was conducted by Fiedler and Martin Chemers in 1984 at Sears, Roebuck, and Company. They implemented eight hours of leader-matching training in two of five randomly selected stores. The other stores had equivalent amounts of training discussions. Subsequent rates of the managers on eight performance scales used by Sears showed those who had received the leader-matching training to be superior on every performance dimension.

Assessing Leadership Types

There have been other applications of leadership research that recommend that the leader choose the appropriate behavior. Victor Vroom and Philip Yetton urge leaders to adopt one of four leadership types. The autocratic leader solves the problem independently, with or without information from subordinates. A consultative leader shares the problem with individual subordinates or with the group and obtains ideas and suggestions that may or may not influence the final decision. A group leader shares the problem with an individual, and together they find a mutually agreeable solution, or with a group that produces a consensus solution that the leader implements. A delegatory leader gives the problem to a single subordinate, offering relevant information but not exerting any influence over the subordinate’s decision.

Which of the above four types of leadership is advocated depends on the answers to a series of questions about the need for a quality solution, the amount of information available to the leader and subordinates, the structure of the problem, and attitudes of subordinates. The questions are arranged in a decision tree, so that at each step the leader answers “yes” or “no” and then proceeds to the next step. Vroom has developed a training program based on this model. It has several components. First is an explanation of the theory. Trainees practice using the theory to describe leader behavior and deciding how they would handle various hypothetical situations. Then trainees take part in simulated leadership situations and receive feedback on both their actual behavior and the leader behavior that is prescribed by the theory. Finally, there are small-group discussions about the experience. The goal is for trainees to learn how and when to adopt new leadership patterns. Reactions of participants to the program tend to be highly favorable.

Leader Behavior Research

Concerns about leadership are evident in nearly every aspect of society. Problems such as illiteracy, inferior education, and environmental destruction are routinely attributed to misguided leadership, ineffective leadership, or an absence of leadership. Within organizations, leaders are held accountable for the work of their subordinates and the ultimate success of the organization. Because of its obvious importance, psychologists have pursued the study of leadership with the goal of developing explanations about the factors that contribute to effective leadership.

One popular conception of leadership is that it is a personality trait. If so, people vary in the extent to which they have leadership abilities. It would also be logical to expect that people in positions of leadership will have different personality characteristics from those who are followers. Yet surprisingly, the results of a large number of studies comparing the traits of leaders and followers have revealed only a few systematic differences. For example, those who are in positions of leadership appear to be, on average, slightly more intelligent and self-confident than followers; however, the magnitude of such differences tends to be small, so there is considerable overlap between leaders and followers. One problem in using this evidence to conclude that individual differences in personality determine leadership is that the traits noted may be the result, rather than the cause, of being in a position of leadership. For example, a person who, for whatever reason, is in a position of leadership may become more self-confident.

This research suggests that there are many factors besides personality that determine the ascent to a position of leadership. This is not so surprising if one considers that groups vary in many ways, as do their leadership needs. Thus there is no clear “leadership type” that is consistent across groups. For this reason, psychologists have tended to abandon the study of leadership as a personality characteristic and pursue other approaches. The advent of an emphasis on leader behavior occurred at Ohio State University in the 1950s. Ralph Stogdill, Edwin Fleischman, and others developed the constructs of leader consideration and initiating structure. These constructs have proved to be useful in several theories of leadership and have been important in attempts to improve leader effectiveness, particularly in organizational settings.

In addition to academic settings, applied settings have been important in the history of leadership research. Studies conducted by the oil company Exxon in an attempt to improve leadership effectiveness led to the independent development of the managerial grid by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton. The two important dimensions of leader behavior that emerged from this work are concern for people and concern for production.


Bass, Bernard M. Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership. 3d ed. New York: Free Press, 1990. Print.

Bass, Bernard M.. Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. New York: Free Press, 1985. Print.

Brady, Chris, and Orrin Woodward. Launching a Leadership Revolution: Mastering the Five Levels of Influence. New York: Business Plus, 2008. Print.

Day, David V., and John Antonakis. The Nature of Leadership. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2012.

Kellerman, Barbara. The End of Leadership. New York: Harper Business, 2012. Print.

Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey, 2008. Print.

Smith, Blanchard B. “The TELOS Program and the Vroom-Yetton Model.” In Crosscurrents in Leadership. Ed. James G. Hunt and Lars L. Larson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1979. Print.

Williams, Pat, and Jim Denney. Leadership Excellence. Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2012. Print.

Yukl, Gary A. Leadership in Organizations. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 2001. Print.

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