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Trait and Behavior Theories: How Do They Influence Leadership Styles?
When determining what affects leadership has on those who follow them, many factors come into play. Over time there have been many theories to shed light on this subject. This paper is designed to evaluate those factors affecting leadership styles. There will be a discussion of three trait and behavioral theories; autocratic, democratic and the laissez-faire theory. The focus will be to define each theory along with an example of a leader who exemplifies each theory. A comparison will be made to provide the distinctive similarities and differences among them. Then, we will discuss how they would be relevant to an organization today.
Trait Theories: How Do They Influence Leadership Styles
In each theory, there are traits that define the type of leader someone will be (Zaccaro, 2007). First, the autocratic theory, defined as being more authoritative, having a monarchy mind frame or one who presents themselves similar to a dictator (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012). Research shows that leaders who exhibit the trait base on this theory have the tendency to be the sole decision maker with little to no input from their followers. Based on Billig’s (2015) analysis of Kurt Lewin’s studies, autocratic leadership can entice either a sense of fear or resistance amongst the followers when they feel like they have no voice in the organization they are apart of.
When we talk about leaders who fit this mold there are some pros and cons. The common pro that is acknowledged is how long it takes for a decision to be made. One can conclude that due to there only being one person making the decision and not that of a group, the time it takes is much faster. An unlikely public figure that exemplifies this theory would be Martha Stewart (Gren, C 2015). Her business, better described as her “empire” was built based on her personal vision of how she wanted to be represented which included her expectations of those who work for her. If there were any changes and decisions made, they went through her and she made all final decisions. This style of leadership has obviously been beneficial to her with her success service as evidence. The type of business she built lends itself to this style of leadership because it is based on her life and what she likes. Therefore, this theory may not be all “bad” as mainly described in research compared to a theory such as the Democratic Theory (Billig, 2015).
The Democratic theory is described as, leadership and its followers having shared responsibility in decision making (VanVugt, Jepson, Hartman, & De Cremer, 2004). This leadership style is more inclusive, embodies teamwork which allows everyone to have a voice. In researching this theory seemed to be the most favorable because it displayed more balance in the way an organization can be operated. This theory gives the followers some control without leader having to relinquish any of their control because ultimately the decision is that of the leader. The decision, however, will be influenced by the input of the followers. This can lead to more commitment from the followers of the decisions made (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012).
This theory can be applied to different types of organizations with much success. However, the more recognizable democratic leader is former President Barrack Obama. He serves a good example of democracy because (a) he acknowledged himself as a democratic leader and (b), he addressed the country during his election and terms with words of inclusion such as “yes we can” “We need to be the change we seek” or “We did not come here to fear the future we came here to shape it”. He did not just say those quotes without putting them into action. Listening to the needs of the people and what was one of the main concerns during his terms was healthcare. This lead to the Affordable Care Act that ensured healthcare will be available for all Americas. Even though some may look at it as one person in power the President still answers to different levels of government. Therefore, in addition to making decisions that benefit the people who elected him, he worked with Congress who ultimately gives the green light on his decision making.
The third theory, Laissez-faire, defined as the more hands-off model where the followers make the decisions. The leader’s main purpose would be to provide guidance or tools to help solve problems and make decisions (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012). In more practical terms they are present for consultations to develop the ideas for change and allow the followers to decide the route to take to complete the task. They are sometimes considered and overseer, more similar to a supervisor than a leader. With that being said the Laissez-fair theory advises that even though the followers make the decision the leader does share in the responsibility of its outcome (Billig, 2015).
Most organizations do not adopt this form of leadership due to the minimum input from leadership. However, an example of laissez-faire leadership in my personal line of business the leadership of training and development within the National Alliance Administrative Services department, has adopted the laissez-faire leadership style. His followers also known as coaches have free reign in their responsibilities. For example, their objective is to monitor the phone advocates to ensure they are performing to the company’s standard. The coaching team chose their own work schedule. They do not have a set curriculum to follow in their day to day duties. The leader allows them to work at their own pace and provide feedback including their own biases and what they feel is appropriate. This form of leadership has seen success in this department because it has allowed the coaching staff to create comradery and their own curriculum based on the group’s coaching experiences.
When comparing the theories, there are many differences and a few similarities. The main difference is how decisions are made. For example, with the autocratic theory, the leader makes the decision himself without the input of others. The democratic theory suggests that decisions are made collectively between the leader and the group, in most case what the majority decides (VanVugt, Jepson, Hartman, & De Cremer, 2004). Then with the laissez-faire theory, in which there is not an established way of coming to a decision. In this theory, it is mostly free-form thinking and working where the followers make the decision with provided guidance from the leader.
There are also similarities within these theories. Most of the evidence focuses on the similarities between the autocratic and democratic theories. The introduction of the laissez-faire theory is usually to conserve the basic theoretic values of the studies (Billig, 2015). The similarities between autocracy and democracy are that both have leadership involvement in the decision making, followers who work towards a common goal and both leaders will take responsibility for final decisions. The small similarity between democracy and laissez-faire is that both theories suggest a great portion of the decision making is based on the followers’ input.
The success of applying these theories in an organization today would depend on the climate of the organization. For instance, if the main goal is productivity then the autocratic theory may be the more appropriate form of leadership. This type of leadership would give the directive with the expectation of their followers to get the job done. The downfall to this is ostracizing the leader and creating a break down the morale of the organization (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012). This is a common concern with the autocratic theory because it can leave the followers feeling disinterested in the success of the organization thus, decreasing productivity or the quality of their productivity.
Second, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is how applying the democratic theory can increase follower participation and morale. Due to the fact that this theory allows for the followers to be involved in the decision making it can give them a sense of importance to the organization increasing their satisfaction with the company (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012). The Laissez-Faire theory takes a special kind of atmosphere to be successful. This model works more in an organization where the followers require little to no supervision and are highly intelligent and qualified in their positions. The struggle may come with keeping the team focused if there is a task that has to be completed in a certain time from. Without the uniformity or structure, this can pose as an issue in these cases (Bhatti, Maitlo, Shaikh, Hashmi, M. Shaikh, 2012).
It is safe to say that all of the theories have their pros and cons. The autocratic or “authoritarian” theory can be the best theory to apply in an organization that requires a lot of structure or one that equates its success to how their production looks on paper. On the other hand, it can be flawed when the followers are not satisfied with the lack of control or ability to have a say in the decision making. The democratic theory in many studies was referred to as the “good” theory because it offered more of a balance between the leader and follower. This model focuses on using teamwork to come to a decision. Even though the leader makes the final decision, it is based on the input received from the followers. This theory is most favorable in the majority of organizations because there is little blow-back from the followers if they feel as though the organization is being fair and considerate of their thoughts. The Laissez-faire theory can be successful when the structure is not as important as compared to those organizations ran with autocratic leadership. This leaves room for creativity and a high level of job satisfaction. However, the con is with as much freedom and control over the decision making it can be hard to keep a high level of commitment to projects and remaining productive when there is not enough structure. Nevertheless, all three can be successful depending on the needs of the organization. For a more strict production based atmosphere autocracy is best, team-based organizations are more successful with a democratic approach and more free-flowing organizations are as successful with the laissez-faire model.
- Bhatti, N., Maitlo, G., Shaikh, N., Hashmi, M., M. Shaikh, F. (2012) The Impact of Autocratic and Democratic Leadership Style on Job Satisfaction International Business Research, 5(2), 192
- Billig, M. (2015). Kurt Lewin’s leadership studies and his legacy to social psychology: Is there nothing as practical as a good theory? Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 45(4), 440–460.
- Gren, C 2015Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, a shining business empire. (online) https://www.industryleadersmagazine.com/martha-stewart-living-omnimedia-a-shining-business-empire/
- VanVugt, M., Jepson, S., Hartman, C., & De Cremer, D. (2004). Why autocratic leadership might fail in solving public good dilemmas: The importance of group stability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 1-20.
- Zaccaro, S. J. (2007). Trait-based perspectives of leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 6–16
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