Behavioral Approaches to Leadership

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Behavioral Theory:

Lewin’s theory helped establish behavioral elements as critical to understanding leadership, but his influence was limited because it did not provide an explicit way to understand behavior. For example, Lewin explained behavior in terms of three factors that interact with each other; however, he had little to say about how these factors influenced behavior.

In addition, behavioral theory has been criticized for being atheoretical. Although it provides an understanding of the forces that guide people’s interactions with their environment, not much explanation is given as to why or how they do this.

The research of Kurt Lewin was also limited because it was conducted in an academic setting, not in the workplace. The main purpose of his research was to conduct experiments in order to document cause-effect relationships in behavior. Therefore, it did not provide much guidance for practitioners regarding how to apply the theory to leadership situations.

The move from behavioral theory toward a behavioral approach to leadership can be attributed largely to the work of several researchers in the 1960s. Two people most responsible were Bernard Bass, a schoolteacher who became an academic leader in organizational behavior, and Robert Lord , an industrial psychologist.

Bass’s work is important because he helped develop Lewin’s theories into useful concepts that are useful to leaders today. He brought together ideas from a number of disciplines to develop a general theory of leadership behavior.

Bass’s conceptualization of leader effectiveness reflects Lewin’s concepts of personal characteristics and forces influencing behavior. In Bass’ view, leaders must have the ability to assess situations, decide on courses of action, implement those actions, and evaluate their own performance as a way to improve their future actions. Bass’ work was initially rooted in psychology, but it eventually became part of the more general field of organizational behavior.

His multidimensional approach to leadership had some limitations that hindered its practical application for practitioners. First, some research has questioned whether or not leader behaviors are sufficient to produce effective leadership. Second, Bass’s framework does not provide much guidance to practitioners regarding how they can achieve the results that Bass found.

Robert Lord’s work is also important because he helped society understand that leadership was not limited to the person at the top of the organizational hierarchy. In 1967, Lord suggested that all group members could be considered as leaders given their impact on team cohesiveness and performance. He also argued that group member behavior can be both positive and negative, which was contrary to the prevailing assumption that only leaders could influence groups.

Behavioral Theorists:

Robert Stogdill:

Stogdill was a famous psychologist who wrote several books about leadership. His first book, “Leadership”, published in 1948, was the first to integrate research from different disciplines including psychology, politics and business.

David McClelland:

He argued that leadership is the strong desire for power. People will acquire positions of power by demonstrating their ability to get results through others.

Kurt Lewin:

He said that influence is an interaction between a leader and his or her followers. Therefore, a leader cannot influence others without being influenced by them.

Wilfred Lasswell:

He said that leaders find ways to influence others by appealing to their values and emotions.

Werner Erhard:

He argued that there is no such thing as leadership, only the opportunity for leaders and followers to come together in service of a shared goal.

Behavioral Approach:

This approach analyzes factors within an organization’s environment and within the organization itself that influence employees to behave in certain ways toward the organization. The focus of this approach is on how managers can motivate and influence their subordinates.


Factors that motivate employees include financial rewards, promotional opportunities, internal work opportunities, good working relationships with other members of the company, job satisfaction , etc. For example, if your company starts a college tuition reimbursement program, this may be a factor that motivates employees.

Abraham Maslow

The most famous behavioral theorist is Abraham Maslow who developed the Hierarchy of Needs and Motivators. He argued that we are motivated by unsatisfied needs and drives , and we will move towards satisfying those needs in order to satisfy these drives.

He believed that the best leaders are those who have achieved self-actualization. In other words, they have reached their full potential as a person and have fulfilled all of their needs.

He explained that people move through 5 levels of needs:

The lowest level is characterized by physiological and safety needs, such as food and shelter.

The second level of motivation is social–the desire to belong and be a part of a group. The third level of motivation is esteem — the desire to feel confident about ourselves and our abilities. The fourth is the level of self-actualization — the desire to fulfill our potential, to become all we can be.

McClelland’s Theory of Needs:

David McClelland developed a three-need theory that pointed out that there are different needs motivating individuals in most situations.

The first need is achievement — the desire to accomplish goals.

The second is power — the desire to influence others.

The third need is affiliation — the desire for close relationships.


There are two main types of influence that leaders use on their subordinates – coercive and reward-based.

Coercive tactics are control through fear. For example, someone tells you they will not support your proposal unless you do what they want.

Reward-based tactics are control through rewards. For example, someone makes a promise to support your proposal if you do X, Y and Z.

Lasswell’s Elite:

People in power use their influence to persuade others to work on causes that they believe in.

To influence others, a leader must first be able to persuade the people he depends on to help him achieve his goals. The most effective leaders are those who can develop a compelling vision and convince other people to work toward that goal. Once you hold a position of power , you have the ability to lead. However, this does not mean that you are an effective leader–it is possible to hold power and neglect the responsibility of leadership.

Influence Tactics:

The most common types of influence tactics include:

Positive Reinforcement:

This tactic includes rewards , praise, encouragement, etc. It motivates people through pleasure when they do something good or produce desired results.

Negative Reinforcement:

This tactic includes punishments, scolding, etc. It motivates people through fear of some kind of punishment or negative outcome.


The threat of economic loss, withholding resources , threats of physical violence are all coercive tactics. They motivate others by creating a feeling of obligation to comply with the wishes of the person who is using coercive tactics. For example, when a boss threatens to fire an employee if he does not do something.


Authority is a legitimate claim or right that one party has over another, and it can be used as a source for influence. For example, a manager’s authority stems from their position in the organizational hierarchy and the power that goes along with it.

Authority has three sources:

Expert Authority:

This is when one party has specialized, expert knowledge about a topic. For example, if you are an engineer, you will have expertise on engineering topics and your subordinates will be more likely to follow your instructions because of this authority.

Referent Authority:

This is when one party (the authority) claims to represent another party (the referent). For example, a manager might claim that she has the power and authority of the entire company behind her.

Role-Based Approaches:

This is where an authority figure takes on the role of representing the interests of others. For example, if the CEO of a company comes to visit your office, you will feel obliged to follow his instructions. This is because he is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as speaking on behalf of the entire organization.

Leader-Member Exchange (LMX):

The relationship between any two people in an organization has six dimensions:


The extent to which we work together with others.

Task Orientation:

The extent to which we focus on the main job at hand, rather than focusing on the relationship between us and our coworkers.


The extent to which we care about and understand each other as people.

Social Support:

The extent to which we provide encouragement, affirmation , and help to each other.

LMX also has two dimensions:

Leader-member exchange (LMX): This is a dyadic relationship that exists between leader s and followers. It involves the exchange of rewards  and resources between people in authority  and those who work for them.

Leader-member relationship (LMR): This is a group level relationship that defines how groups’ members interact with one another.

For example, an LMR can be characterized by how often subordinates get together to socialize with the leader.

Leadership roles:   A leadership role is an activity that a person performs as part of their work duties. These roles make up what we call the “job” and typically include: Task roles (e.g. supervisor, analyst) – these describe how people do their jobs; Relationship roles (e.g. mentor, coach) – these describe how people manage their relationships with others in the workplace; Informational roles (e.g., negotiator, negotiator); Decisional roles (e.g., leader, follower);

Daily work tasks: These are things that people do to get through their day-to-day job (i.e., daily routine).


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The leader-member exchange: There are two types of LMX:

Transactional leadership: This is based on contingent rewards and outcomes. For example, a boss who give s you more responsibility if you perform well and takes it away if you don’t.

Transformational Leadership: This is based on personal warmth and the leader’s charisma. Transformational leadership is more than just giving contingent rewards: It also involves inspiring , influencing, and motivating followers.

Personality: Personality has to do with unique differences in people that are relatively stable over time and across situations. For example, some managers might be very talkative while others are quiet. These personality traits are relatively stable over time.

Leader characteristics: We are all familiar with the common leadership characteristics like honesty, charisma, and strength. However, each of these traits only explains a small amount of the variance in leadership (i.e., it accounts for about 5% of what makes people effective leaders).

Forms of attribution error: Mistakes people make when trying to understand the cause of things.

Self-serving attributional bias:

A person’s tendency to take credit for their successes but avoid taking responsibility for their failures. For example , if you accidentally spill your coffee in front of the CEO, you might immediately apologize because you want him to like you. When he says not to worry about it, you might think that he forgives you because he likes you.

On the other hand , if your boss spills coffee on himself, you might not say anything because you don’t want to be blamed for his mistake.

Fundamental attribution error:

The tendency to explain others’ behavior in terms of external factors (e.g., “he got the promotion because he was lucky ” ) and to explain our behavior in terms of internal factors (e.g., “I deserved the promotion because I worked hard “). Self-serving bias : The tendency to take credit for good outcomes and deny responsibility for bad ones. – This shows up as a type of attributional bias: If we are successful, we are the ones to blame. If we fail , external factors are to blame.

Self-serving bias in career success:

The career success of managers who have subordinates is partly due to their own talents but also because their employees want them to succeed.

Crossed consequences:

When our actions have unintended consequences that hurt us as well as intended consequences that help us. For example , you might sprain your ankle while trying to get a good workout in at the gym.

Favorability bias:

Tendency to evaluate others favorably when their outcomes are better than expected and unfavorably when their outcomes are worse than expected.


Narcissism is the lasting belief that one is extremely important and valuable. It can be either overt or covert (i.e., having a grandiose sense of self-importance vs. seeking attention and admiration). Narcissism also can be healthy (e.g., self-respect, strong confidence), unproductive (e.g., arrogance), or pathological (e.g., vanity).

– Narcissists tend to have really high self esteem, but it can be fragile if they perceive that others are not giving them the praise and admiration that they deserve.

– People who score high on narcissism tend to be more aggressive and less likely to apologize for their mistakes. They also tend to be low in emotion identification and empathy , both of which are needed for great leadership. Narcissists can lead effectively but only when everybody follows them unquestioningly (which is not too hard to get people to do).

– People high in narcissism don’t like criticism , especially if it is constructive. They are more likely than others to lash out when criticized. Narcissists also tend to be bad at picking up on nonverbal communication cues (e.g., facial expression) that would suggest that somebody doesn’t like them (e.g., when somebody is smiling but looks like they are faking it).

– Narcissism will be high at the outset of a leader’s tenure, but it tends to decrease over time (i.e., people learn that having everyone agree with them and not giving them any feedback isn’t good for them in the long run).

– Narcissism will vary between women and men. Women tend to score higher than men on narcissism when it is overt, but men tend to score higher than women on covert narcissism.

Figure 1: The “dark triad” of personality characteristics (i.e., narcissism , Machiavellianism , and psychopathy) and their link to counterproductive work behaviors.

The dark triad

Psychopathic Manipulation:

The use of charm, seduction, glibness, or other smooth talk to exploit others for personal gain. – Psychopaths tend to lack empathy and guilt , which is why they are often not deterred by the possibility that their actions will hurt people. Furthermore, psychopathic manipulation does not work consistently across all contexts ; it works best in situations where the other person is motivated to be influenced.

Machivellian Self-Interest: The belief that people will act in their own self-interest at all times, even when it hurts others.

– People who are high in Machiavellianism tend to have good social skills , because they need them in order to get people to do what they want. They also have a “0 – 1” mindset, which means that people can either be useful to them or not, with nothing in between.

– Machiavellianism is more common among men than women. Among men, it has been linked to bullying and using psychological tactics against others , whereas it does not predict those things among women.

Lying and Cheating: A high level of self-interest, combined with a low level of concern about honesty and ethical behavior.

– People who score high on this trait tend to see lying as just another form of self-presentation. They also use lying strategically, to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions or to make themselves look better.

– Women and men both tend to lie equally (even in the workplace where it is more likely be seen as counterproductive). However, women are judged more harshly for doing so.


the behavioral approach to leadership theory is a more recent development, building on the work of many researchers throughout the twentieth century. It incorporates ideas from psychology, political science and economics to provide a framework for analyzing situations that leaders encounter It is a big tent approach, so many disparate ideas fit together under the umbrella. This diversity of opinion means that there is no single best way to be a great leader. However, if you want your leadership style to produce the best outcomes, you should follow in the footsteps of good leaders when possible and avoid following in the footsteps of the bad ones.