What Have We Learned from the 100-Year History of Leadership Research? (Part I)

Dr. Timothy Judge and his team at Fisher Leadership Initiative of the Ohio State University recently conducted a leadership landscape survey on 58 leadership scholars. One of the survey questions asked participants to write down as many as 8 findings that they believe we have learned from the 100-year history of leadership research. We will pick some of the most frequently mentioned findings, explain to you what they are and how they helped advance the field of leadership research.

The Leader Member Exchange (LMX) Theory

Before 1970s, most studies on leadership styles were based on the assumption that a leader behaves in the same way toward each of his/her subordinates.

Dansereau, Graen and Haga (1975)1 brought up a different leadership research strategy, which argues that, instead of leading and managing everyone using the same techniques, leaders develop unique relationships and leadership styles with different employees. This is called the vertical dyad linkage (VDL) approach. An assumption like this may not seem significant nowadays, but it changed how researchers approach leadership studies. It encouraged them to investigate interaction styles of specific leader-member pairs and how they will affect individual and organizational outcomes.

Leader Member Exchange (LMX) theory2 was developed based on the VDL approach. The theory suggests that leaders develop different types of relationships with different subordinates through social exchanges. The theory was often used to explain the nature of leader-follower relationships and their impacts. It also provides helpful guidelines for leaders who want to build committed and loyal work teams and maintain good relationships with their team members.

According to LMX theory, these relationships start forming through the discovery of similar characteristics—such as personalities, expectations or goals—between leaders and members. The relationship will continue to develop based on, but not limited to, the supervisor’s ability to:

  1. communicate expectations for the subordinates clearly
  2. understand the subordinate’s problems and needs
  3. recognize employees’ potential
  4. help subordinates with work problems and share their loads

In return, employees would:

  1. trust the supervisor’s intentions and actions
  2. defend and justify the supervisor’s decisions despite the absence of the supervisor.

Hence, the leader-member pair will develop the positive cycle of exchanges that benefit both parties. High-quality exchanges are characterized by high level of mutual trust, respect and obligation2. Effective leadership outcomes will occur when leaders and followers are able to develop such work relationships.

Over the past few decades, a high-quality interaction was found to be positively related to followers’ work performance, job satisfaction, affection toward the organization (organizational commitment), perceptions of fairness in the workplace (organizational justice), innovation, pro-social behaviors at work (helping behaviors that benefit both the organizations and coworkers) and was found to reduce employee turnover.

The significance of LMX theory is that it initiated the relationship-based approach to leadership research. It suggests leadership is the product of interaction between specific leader-member pairs and reminds leaders that each interaction with a subordinate has an importance of its own.


  1. Dansereau Jr, F., Graen, G., & Haga, W. J. (1975). A vertical dyad linkage approach to leadership within formal organizations: A longitudinal investigation of the role making process. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance13, 46-78.
  2. Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. The Leadership Quarterly6, 219-247.


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