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Organizational Psychology – Leadership

Answers the Question

What do psychologists know about leadership and what has yet to be learned?

How it Began

Hackman and Wageman 2007, stated that the leadership field, despite its long and chequered history in industrial and organizational psychology was “curiously unformed.” This view is supported by the myraid definitions relating to the construct of leadership, a tendency to theorize about leadership that lacks forms, models, and habits of leadership which are essential for transforming the way we use power and how we respond to power and leadership.


Since the 1940s many attempts have been made to define and study the process of leadership in terms of the interaction between leader and the organizational environment with all its social complexities.  Research has shifted from a heroic leader centric focus to that which recognizes leaders are part of an inclusive process involving follows and social, organisational and environmental factors.  The necessity being to keep in mind that leadership is a process not a person.

The multi-faceted, multi-level, interpersonal and multi-functional dynamic of leadership coupled with the increasingly complex challenges  makes a scientific definition of leadership impossible to achieve.  However, with the increasing complexity of modern organizational life, leaders need to be more highly developed and more leaders need to be developed.

Key Terminology

  • Leadership – the art of influencing followers to achieve success by identifying joint goals, finding best-fit roles in teams, collaborating constructively and dynamically, and adapting to change within their environments.
  • Traits – A trait is a characteristic of a person’s personality, motives, and pattern of behaviour.
  • Behaviours – The actions by which a leader adjusts to its environment.
  • Contingency – Changing leadership behaviour or style by modifying its consequences
  • Charisma – A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm
  • Transformational – when leaders and followers make each other to advance to a higher level of moral and motivation.
  • Leader-Member Exchange – The formation of two groups by a leader of an in-group and an out-group, of followers
  • Leadership Perceptions – How leaders perceive subordinates
  • Shared Leadership – Contexts in which leadership and influence is distributed across the teams

In Brief

There are too many leadership theories to cover in brief.  Below are just some of the theories developed over the last 70 years.

  • Situation Leadership – Hersey & Blanchard (1971) – Examines appropriate leadership behaviours for different situations
  • Contingency Theory – Fiedler (1964, 1967) – Assumes that leaders cannot change their behaviour, but instead recommends matching leaders based on the preferred leadership style to specific situations and contexts.
  • Path Goal Theory – Evans, (1970, 1974); House and Dessler, 1974) – Explores how leaders can motivate followers to achieve set goals and improve their own and the organization’s performance.
  • Leadership Substitutes Theory – Kerr and Jermier (1978) – Explores situational variables (contextual aspects of the task, subordinates, organization) that can make a leader ineffective or redundant
  • Normative Decision Model – Vroom and Yetton (1973) – Further decision making procedures of participative leaders and their effectiveness
  • Cognitive Resources Theory – Fiedler and Garcia (1987) – The interaction of different sources of stress on a leadership’s cognitive ability and leadership behaviours and their impact on group performance
  • Multiple-Linkage Model – Yukl (1971) – Examines how situational variables moderate the influence of a leader’s behaviour on individual and group performance
  • Leaders-Member Exchange Theory – Dansereau et al (1975) – The vertical links between the individual leader and follower.
  • Leadership Making – Graen and Uhl-Bien (1991) – Prescribes that it is vital for leaders to develop as many high-quality exchanges and work relationships as possible.
  • Charismatic Leadership – Beyer and Browning (1999) – Behavioural view of charisma, identifying what a charismatic leader does or how they behave.
  • Transformational Leadership Theory – Downton (1973) – The leadership process of changing how people feel about themselves, which in turn raises their motivation and enables them to achieve performance beyond normal expectations.
  • Transactional Leadership Theory – Burns ( (1978) – the transaction or exchange between leader and followers, resulting in a material or psychological reward for followers compliance.
  • Full Range Leadership Model – Avolio and Bass (1993, 2002) – Comprises of three component dimensions; transformational leadership, transactional leadership and laissez-faire or non-leadership.


Further Resources

What does this mean for Organization Development?

With Leadership such a complex construct the OD approach to developing effective leaders should be to see it as a component of developing effective teams and organisations.  At times this may involve working intensively with individual skills, aspirations and behaviours; sometimes the focus may be on design and delivery of development activities; at other times the OD practitioner may find themselves supporting teams, whole organisations or systems as they lead people through change.

The central focus however, is always to explore why and how leaders experience of leadership can be improved and enhanced and employees can be mobilized to do their best.