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Leadership Theories Trait and Contingency Leadership

This paper discusses two leadership theories and how they can help managers relate to subordinates.


Organizational leadership is important for many reasons. A company must have someone who takes the ultimate responsibility for the organization’s actions. A company may seem monolithic and unapproachable unless it wears a human “face,” and a leader can supply that. (Think of Ben and Jerry and their ice cream company, or Lee Iococca and Chrysler.) A leader sets the “tone” of the organization as well. For all these reasons and many others, organizational leadership is vital.

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This paper will examine two types of leadership: trait leadership and contingency leadership. It discusses what they are, who devised the theories, and how a knowledge of them can contribute to effective organizational leadership.

Theory of Trait Leadership

As one might expect from the name, trait theory posits that leaders have certain “traits” that make them effective, and that these traits can be recognized. One formal definition is this: “Trait Theory: A type of leadership theory based on the idea that personal characteristics determine leader emergence and leader performance.” (Aamodt, PG).

The word “emergence” is interesting since it indicates that a leader will “emerge” naturally if he or she has the traits of a leader; it implies that a true leader is born, not made.

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The idea behind the trait theory of leadership was developed by an individual named Bird in 1940; there may have been others. It was his idea that it should be possible to look at leaders and identify the traits that they had in common; he listed approximately 79 characteristics of leaders. (“Theories of Leadership,” PG). Like most leadership theories, this one is susceptible to criticism, and in fact, Stogill objected to the theory as early as 1948. (“Management Style,” PG).

In this case, the theory doesn’t take into account those people who become effective leaders by experience, study, or other means that have nothing to do with innate qualities.
This is the “charismatic” leader, the one people follow because of his “magnetic” personality.

Theory of Contingency Leadership

The “contingency theory” was developed by Fred Fiedler, and explains that “group performance is a result of the interaction of two factors. These factors are known as leadership style and situational favorableness.” (Antoine, PG). “Leadership style,” according to Fiedler, is based upon the personality of the leader, and thus cannot change, since human personality doesn’t change.

Because of this, Fiedler also devised a way to discover whether a leader was oriented more toward interpersonal relationships, or focused on tasks. He devised what he called the least-preferred coworker (LPC) scale.

The LPC scale is based on the leader’s response to the person he has worked with whom he liked least. The leader is asked to think of this person, and then to rate the individual on a series of bipolar scales; the ratings run from 1 through 8, thus:
Unfriendly 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Friendly
Uncooperative 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Cooperative

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The responses of the leader to this series of scales, usually 16 in total, are summed and averaged. A high LPC score suggests that the leader has a “human relations orientation,” and a low score suggests that he is more focused on the task. (Antoine, PG). Although this test may indicate the type of leadership style the leader is most comfortable using, it is not always an accurate measurement.

The other part of the equation is situational favorableness. As we might expect, this terminology means that in order for a leader to be effective, he must be in a situation in which he can exert his influence over others. When both these conditions are present, Fiedler’s “contingency leadership” theory is satisfied.

The theory is not without faults, and has been criticized; one of its obvious flaws is the idea that human personality cannot change. Clearly, training and experience have a great deal of impact on a person’s development, and Fiedler doesn’t take these and other similar factors into account. Still, if a leader understands his own style and the concerns of his workers, he can be a more effective supervisor. That is, if he is working with people who prefer to be counselled and guided, he will want to adopt an interpersonal, people-focused style. If they are more concerned with the task and needless “careful handling,” he can proceed with a task-oriented style.


These two different theories illustrate the fact that it is almost impossible to accurately predict the way in which an effective leaders develops. Bird posited that leaders are born, not made; yet many people who do not seem to be naturally charismatic are effective leaders.
Similarly, Fiedler’s theory has weak points, particularly in regard to those people who become effective leaders when they adapt their personalities to their situation, something he felt was impossible.

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It’s useful to examine these theories, which are only two of many, but the real test comes when the leader actually works with other members of the organization.


A Glossary of Psychological Terms. [Web site]. N.d. Accessed: 10 Jan 2003.

Aamodt, Michael G. “Leadership.” Wadsworth Publishing Company [Web site]. March 1999. Accessed: 10 Jan 2003.

Antoine, Patrich. “Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership.” [Web page]. N.d. Accessed: 10 Jan 2003.

“Management Style.” [Web page]. N.d. Accessed: 10 Jan 2003.

“Theories of Leadership.” [Web page]. N.d. Accessed: 10 Jan 2003.

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Leadership Theories Trait and Contingency Leadership. (2021, Feb 04). Retrieved February 8, 2023, from