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Leadership Qualities and Leadership Theories

Updated November 24, 2021
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Leadership Qualities and Leadership Theories essay

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Trait, situational leadership, and functional leadership theories shall be explored to inform my personal leadership philosophy. Trait theory suggests innate qualities determine one’s natural leadership style. To avoid bias, it is essential to understand this classical theory’s modern application by studying an exemplary contemporary female leader, Brigadier General Rebecca Halstead. As today’s organizations constantly change, the situational leadership theory provides a framework for when to use relationship and task behaviors (Cutler, 2014).

Steve Jobs was an exemplary situational leader who adapted his leadership style to successfully lead Apple. Leading today’s organizations requires foresight, strategy, and the ability to build relationships (Cutler, 2014). Alan Mulally’s use of functional leadership to save the failing Ford Motor Co. also informs my understanding and aligns with my personal leadership philosophy.

Analysis: Theories Review (Major Principles and Power & Influence)

Historically, it was believed there were natural born leaders who possessed inherent qualities allowing them to rise to positions of power (Cutler, 2014). Trait theory is used to categorize those qualities for the purposes of leader selection (Cutler, 2014). Leaders who recognize and have mastery over their inherent leadership qualities may come across as authentic and self-aware. Situational leadership theory accounts for change and calls for leaders to adapt their style to meet the needs of the situation (Cutler, 2014).

This adaptability can lead to effective communication, empowerment, participative decision-making, and employee buy-in (Hersey, 2009). Functional leadership theory recognizes that today’s leaders must be strategic, visionary, and effective at building relationships (Cutler, 2014). Functional leaders empower others to develop leadership skills as they demonstrate emotional intelligence (Cutler, 2014). Effective leaders influence others to want to follow, and those with legitimate authority who employ influence versus coercive power will achieve desired results (Cutler, 2014). Those with a high level of emotional intelligence seek collaboration and input from others, are skilled in reading and relating to subordinates, and adept at influencing followership. Leaders at the highest development level are considered the most effective over complex organizations and are viewed by peers and subordinates as worthy of following (Harris & Kuhnert, 2008).

Analysis: Theories Critique (Strengths & Weaknesses)

The strength of the trait theory is that it allows for evolution. Desired leadership qualities change to reflect those needed to lead contemporary organizations. Adding updated leadership traits expands the pool of potential qualified leaders. The drawback is that it implies leadership cannot be learned (Cutler, 2014). This viewpoint can lead to bias and limit leader selection or create a barrier for those who wish to lead, ultimately hampering organizational growth. The strengths of the situational leadership theory are that it raises awareness of the followers’ needs (Cutler, 2014), illuminates the need for a leader-follower relationship, and provides a framework for which type of behavior – relationship or task – should be used based on the situation (Hersey, 2009).

The criticisms are that the theory lacks clear empirical support, fails to adequately define follower development level, and can limit a leader’s focus to relationship building, stalling progress, performance, and growth (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). The strengths of the functional leadership theory are that it has stood the test of time, clearly defines leadership roles and functions, and acknowledges leadership can be learned (Cutler, 2014). Functional leadership can lead to cohesive team-building, collaboration, and shared vision, resulting in organizational growth and profitability. However, it does not fully account for future challenges as scholars assess global leaders do not yet know what skills and competencies will be needed to thrive (Dunn, Lafferty, & Alford, 2012).

Analysis: Theories Application (Anti- & Exemplary Leadership and Leadership Theories)

Retired Brigadier General Rebecca Halstead is a brilliant leader who possesses leadership traits, such as assertive, disciplined, and accountable, serving her well during her successful military career (Groysberg & Bell, 2011). However, there was a target on her by others who were biased against female military leaders. Despite the bias, Halstead modeled exemplary leadership by putting her soldiers and their families first, making tough decisions, and taking responsibility for her decisions, gaining followership and unconditional support (Groysberg & Bell, 2011). One of the greatest situational leaders was Steve Jobs, who adapted his leadership style based on organizational, follower, and market needs.

Jobs used autocratic leadership as he surrounded himself with like-minded people to follow his clear vision; engaged in participative leadership when he solicited innovative ideas for new products; and delegated development by leveraging the vast knowledge base of his employees (Bashir, 2017). Alan Mulally was an effective functional leader as he rescued the struggling Ford Motor Co. by employing a sound strategy and effective communication to eliminate knowledge silos, unify employees, leverage their unique knowledge base, and align the culture to his vision (The Art Of, 2018). Ford’s turnaround and unprecedented profit earnings (Fortune Editors, 2014) testifies to his success in leadership.

In contrast, Ray Vecci, the former CEO of Alaska Airlines, appeared to lack the innate leadership qualities to rescue the failing airline (Avolio, Patterson, & Baker, 2015), although he asserted his strengths were leading team efforts to identify and overcome challenges (Vecci, 2019). Vecci was complacent, allowing poor customer service to continue, and accepted below average passenger wait times, resulting in a loss of customers and failing profits (Avolio et al., 2015). Parker Conrad, the former CEO of Zenefits, failed to adapt his leadership style to the needs of the growing employee benefits software startup (Fortune Editors, 2016).

Conrad’s ability to discover and capitalize on new markets served the company well, yet as the startup grew, he failed to adapt his leadership and empower his team, implement controls, and put the needs of the organization over his own, resulting in its downward spiral (Solomon, 2016). Tony Hsieh, leader of Zappos, emphasizes building and maintaining relationships and putting customer needs above revenue, yet leads without a clear strategic vision (Bold Business, 2019). In 2015, Hsieh implemented an organizational change that eliminated all leaders, giving way to self-management, resulting in confusion and high employee turnover (Fortune Editors, 2016).

In law enforcement, trait theory may be used to define leadership qualities such as decisive, aggressive, and dominant; however, it has resulted in gender bias. Situational leadership theory aligns with industry needs, such that autocratic leadership is best during critical incidents while participative leadership is best for developing innovative technologies to address threats. Functional leadership theory will be leveraged more as crime and the industry evolves.

Trait theory illuminates the need to evolve the list of inherent leadership qualities and how it can result in bias. Situational leadership theory offers a framework for adapting styles to achieve desired results. Appropriate use of leadership style can effectively influence followership if done with authenticity and care for subordinates. Functional leadership theory engages leaders’ roles and functions for optimum effectiveness. Leaders are called to empower, engage, and collaborate with their employees, resulting in buy-in and organizational stability.

Personal Theory of Leadership

Trait theory categorizes inherent leadership qualities and illuminates predispositions that can negatively impact organizational leadership. Based on the evolving business landscape, leaders must adapt their leadership style to meet new challenges. Situational leadership theory proposes the effective use of various leadership styles can have a positive influence on leader-follower relationships and organizational outcomes. Functional leadership theory calls for leaders to demonstrate emotional intelligence, empowerment, strategic planning, and relationship building, which works best in modern organizations with a focus on growth (Cutler, 2014).

Aspects of Theories

Many factors precipitate organizational change, such as growth and expansion, globalization, sustainability, and advancements in technology. The ability to navigate and lead organizational change is a key leadership competency (Gray, 2008). However, based on trait theory, leaders can be predisposed to resisting change, which can negatively affect employees’ reactions to change (Oreg & Berson, 2011). Therefore, it is imperative to understand one’s predispositions and seek training and development to overcome inherent weaknesses. Further, adapting one’s leadership style can encourage followership, resulting in successful organizational change.

Based on situational leadership theory, transformational leadership incorporates a variety of styles, such as directive, participative, democratic, or authoritarian (Avolio, 2011). Effective leaders address the needs of the team, task, and individuals to effectively inspire, empower, and enable employees to collaborate, innovate, and share knowledge (Cutler, 2014). This stimulates employees to accept change, inspires them to follow the vision, and positively impacts organizational change (Oreg & Berson, 2011). Based on functional leadership theory, leaders must also focus on team building, cultivating a learning culture, and strategic planning (Cutler, 2014) to help leaders influence, empower, and stimulate innovation (Crawford, 2005).

Intersection of Theory and Practice

Classic and contemporary theories provide a foundation, frame one’s worldview, and precede the practice of effective leadership (Middlehurst, 2008). Elements of leadership theories can be seen in the behaviors of exemplary leaders, which influences my personal theory and informs my understanding of leadership. Leading by example, putting others first, acting decisively, and gaining the support of her troops makes Halstead an exemplary model. Similarly, Jobs’ adaptable leadership style based on situational needs and Mulally’s relationship building, strategic planning, and transformation of Ford’s culture make them exemplary models.

Essential and Flexible Aspects

The essential aspects of my personal leadership theory are to recognize inherent leadership traits while avoiding biases and predispositions that may negatively impact leading change. Additional essential aspects are to enable others to act, build trust, and empower others, resulting in employee commitment to organizational change (Cutler, 2014). These can be achieved by maintaining stakeholder relationships while employing authentic leadership and encouraging subordinates to grow, share knowledge, and follow a collective vision. Although it is important for a leader to know what motivates their followers, it may not be essential to tailor a unique leadership style to fit the needs of every employee. This aspect of situational leadership may cause the leader to categorize employees, which could lead to profiling and bias.

Most Challenging and Comfortable Aspects

One of the most challenging aspects of my personal leadership theory is building and maintaining stakeholder relationships as I am predisposed to being more reserved and less-inclined to seek out relationships. However, this aspect is essential to effective leadership and it builds upon additional essential aspects, such as encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing. Another challenge is to motivate others to follow a shared vision, which requires appealing to the stakeholders at various stages of the change effort (Cutler, 2014). Categorizing employees by what motivates them, while deemed a flexible aspect, may be necessary for followership. The most comfortable essential aspect is to identify my inherent qualities and seek training and development to overcome weaknesses while capitalizing on my strengths.

Application of Personal Theory of Leadership

An independent audit of our federally funded grant program determined our program could not demonstrate results. With its annual funding in jeopardy, key program leaders formed a committee (Kotter, 2012) to develop a performance management process, resulting in organizational change. The sense of urgency and reasoning for the change was well communicated among leaders but not at the employee level. Poor communication left employees unaware as to what changes were needed and how they would be affected. Thus, they developed numerous, disparate performance tracking systems to address the finding, wasting time and resources. Also, employees were not included in the decision-making process, resulting in confusion, uncertainty, and resistance (Richardson & Denton, 1996).

Personal Theory

This change effort could have benefited from aspects of my personal leadership theory. Using elements from functional leadership theory, I would have addressed the needs of the task as well as the needs of the individuals and teams for a smoother change process (Cutler, 2014). Clear goals would have been established and communicated often and at the onset of the process to streamline stakeholder feedback and input (Garvin & Roberto, 2001). Relationships would have been leveraged across all levels of the program to encourage participation in developing the change process. Soliciting stakeholder input would create an opportunity for them to feel valued (Alimo-Metcalfe, 1998), resulting in acceptance rather than resistance. As change inevitably causes some resistance, a feedback and training strategy would reduce opposition (Kotter, 2012). First-line supervisors would be encouraged to recognize and leverage motivators for their employees to continue change behaviors (Kotter, 2012). Once these measures were in place, I would engage all communication channels to share the short-term wins of the change initiative to motivate the organization and its members and forward the change momentum (Kotter, 2012).

Decision Making

My personal leadership theory aligns with strategic decision-making, a complex and comprehensive process (Garvin & Roberto, 2001). As I am predisposed to cognitive biases based on heuristics, which can lead me to make quick judgments (Cutler, 2014), I am intentional to avoid heuristics in strategic decision-making (Busenitz & Barney, 1994). Thus, I will engage others in the decision-making using the inquiry process to encourage and empower stakeholders to share knowledge, employ critical thinking, test assumptions, and evaluate a variety of alternatives to inform the decision (Garvin & Roberto, 2001). My leadership theory would result in successful transformational change because the employees would be well informed of the need for change, engaged in developing the change process, trust the process was fair (Pasmore, Shani, & Woodman, 2010), and committed to the change effort (Kotter, 2012).

Effectiveness of Theory

My personal leadership theory employed in this scenario would ultimately strengthen the faith in the reliability and validity of our program’s performance data by positively impacting a change in behavior among internal stakeholders, furthering the change initiative as it preempted dissension from employees who would otherwise have stalled the change effort, and kept the change momentum going (Kotter, 2012). As it is a challenge for me to build individual relationships, especially during a major transformational change effort, it would be difficult to motivate all internal stakeholders to follow the vision and adopt the changes (Cutler, 2014). This may cause a delay in a successful outcome.

Evaluation Tool

As a strategic leader engaging in transformational change, it is imperative to assess my leadership effectiveness. An impartial way to do this and avoid confirmation bias by seeking information that only supports my decisions is to engage in a comprehensive 360-degree feedback process (Alimo-Metcalfe, 1998; Cutler, 2014). Through this process, internal and external stakeholders will be queried as to their views of the change process, what went right, and what could have been better as well as how my leadership specifically helped or hindered the change initiative. Also, I will engage in a self-assessment and compare to others’ assessments to improve my self-awareness and recognize how others see me (Cutler, 2014). This evaluation tool can help determine the effectiveness of the change effort and identify leadership traits common among other leaders within the same industry (Cutler, 2014). It can also reveal weaknesses and opportunities for development (Cutler, 2014). The feedback results can inform an action plan for improvement of my leadership and the transformational change effort (Cutler, 2014).

Conclusion (Summary and Taught to Others)

Having assessed my personal leadership theory within the context of a real-world organizational change effort, it can be determined that the use of trait, situational leadership, and functional leadership theories provides a well-rounded perspective that informs elements of transformational leadership. Similar to Halstead’s predisposition to effectively lead a military brigade and overcome biases (Groysberg & Bell, 2011), I use trait theory to identify my inherent leadership qualities and, unlike Vecci, suppress my predisposition to using heuristics. Such self-awareness allows me to overcome weakness by employing the inquiry process and participative decision-making.

Similar to Steve Jobs’ ability to adapt his leadership style to ensure the best possible outcome (Bashir, 2017), and unlike Conrad’s inability to adapt his leadership style, I use situational leadership theory to achieve the most effective communication, empower and inspire others to work towards the shared vision and goals, and gain buy-in (Cutler, 2014). Similar to Mulally’s use of functional leadership to catapult Ford Motor Co. into a successful enterprise (Fortune Editors, 2014), and unlike Hsieh’s failure to use foresight and sound decision-making, I forecast the needs of my organization, engage and empower the individuals as well as the team, and influence followership to achieve a successful outcome (Cutler, 2014).

One of the greatest acts of service a leader can do is to pass on their knowledge, empower others to continually engage in learning, and offer opportunities for others to practice what they have learned. In this endeavor, I would publish my personal leadership theory and share it among my organization. I would also provide an explanation as to what informed my personal leadership theory, how it informs my leadership practice, any the reason I am sharing it. This will serve to give stakeholders a better insight as to who I am, build their trust, and garner their followership.

Leadership is not defined by a title, and anyone at any level in the organization can emulate leadership (Cutler, 2014). Through relationship and trust building, modeling leadership, empowering others to participate in decision-making, and encouraging others to develop leadership competencies, I will create a learning organization (Cutler, 2014) that will have a significant and positive impact on its success in meeting future challenges (Strachan, 1996).

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