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Emergence of Followership - Part 1

Historic Analysis of Leadership Approaches

Leadership studies have increased dramatically in the last hundred years. Rost (1993) felt that the absence of a clear definition of leadership was a major problem that resulted in the concept of leadership itself becoming a panacea through which all problems could be addressed. “Part of the reason leadership has such a powerful attraction is that it has taken on mythological significance”(p.4). In his extensive literature review, Rost found more than 200 separate definitions of leadership and grouped them along a generally accepted timescale. Within this framework, they myriad leadership definitions can be further organized into the five conceptual groupings of traits, process, assigned, emergent and integrative to demonstrate how the definitions of leadership have progressed historically.

Image of Leadership Academy from 1920 represents historical Emergence of Followership
Image from "The history and achievements of the Fort Sheridan officers' training camps" (1920)

Trait Approach

The earliest period of the twentieth century began with leadership definitions that were focused on power and domination (Northouse 2013). By the 1930's the emphasis on domination had developed into a more sophisticated concept of leadership as a form of influence, and early research focused primarily on the traits of the leader. Yukl (2010) explains that the trait approach emphasized the attributes of the leader such as personality, motives, values, and skills with an underlying assumption that some people are natural leaders endowed with traits not possessed by other people (p.31). A weakness with the trait approach was that it tended to look for a predominant individual trait and then attempted to correlate that to performance outcomes without providing an explanation of the process.

Behavior Approach

By the early 1950’s researchers had become discouraged with “the trait approach and began to pay closer attention to what managers actually do on the job” (Yukl, 2010, p. 31). Research into the behavior approach can be broadly described as falling into two sub-categories; leadership behaviors associated with task accomplishment, and leadership activities associated with relationships that “help followers feel comfortable with themselves, with each other, and with the situation in which they find themselves” (Northouse, 2013, p.71). By expanding the scope of research from the traits of an individual leader to the behaviors of leaders towards followers, it was able to describe a wide range of management styles (i.e. authority/compliance, country-club management, impoverished management, etc.) and thus provided a useful heuristic for researchers. A primary goal of researchers of the behavioral approach was to find a universal style of leadership that was useful in almost every context, however, the findings contained significant inconsistencies and this goal was never realized.

Assigned (Power-Influence) Approach

The limitations of the behavioral approach contributed to researcher’s focus on group dynamics giving way to the focus on organizational behavior of the 1970’s (Northouse, 2013). The most obvious starting point is recognition that a person assigned to a leadership position within an organization is in possession of a certain amount of power. “This research seeks to explain leadership in terms of the amount and types of power possessed by a leader and how power is exercised” (Yukl, 2010, p. 32). People in assigned positions of leadership include managers, directors, and administrators and the focus of the study is the manner in which they use their positional power to influence the behaviors of subordinates, peers, superiors, and clients. “The favorite methodology has been the use of survey questionnaires to relate leader power to various measures of leadership effectiveness” (Yukl, 2010, p. 32). The drawback to the study of power based on assigned position in an organization is that frequently others do not perceive the assigned leader as the actual leader in the organization.

Emergent (Situational) Approach

Northouse (2013) explains that “when others perceive an individual as the most influential member of the group or organization, regardless of the individual’s title, the person is exhibiting emergent leadership” (p. 8). The concept of emergent leadership contributed to the explosion of leadership research during the 1980s. Emergent leadership is closely aligned with the assumption that different leader attributes will be effective in different situations (Yukl, 2010), and an extreme form of situational theory goes so far as to identify situations where hierarchical authority (i.e. assigned positions of power) are unnecessary. “The primary research method was the comparative study of two or more situations. The dependent variables may be managerial perceptions and attitudes, managerial activities and behavior patterns, or influence processes” (Yukl, 2010, p. 33). The emergent approach was based on observed behavior of followers demonstrating leadership even when they were not assigned to that role. It was an important observation that would eventually lead to the development of the situational approach that recognized the importance of followers in the overall leadership process, thus setting the stage for more a more comprehensive and integrated approach to leadership.

Integrative Approach

With an enormous amount of leadership research available after over a century of study, the tendency in the 21st century is to combine techniques into an integrative approach. Yukl (2010) explains that while “it is common for researchers to include two or more types of leadership variables in the same study, it is still rare to find a theory that includes all of them” (p.33). Northouse (2013) seems to agree with this perspective noting that recent leadership studies focus less on providing definitions of leadership and more on explaining the process of leadership and the interaction between leaders and followers. New theories, such as authentic leadership, servant leadership, and adaptive leadership have all used an integrated approach in an attempt to explain the effectiveness of groups operating in differing situations, within a wide variety of organizational styles and with distinct personality types of leaders and followers.


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