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

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 eight 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.

Contingency Theory of Leadership & Situational Leadership

Decades of leadership research have told us the one single leadership style that can thrive in all circumstances probably doesn’t exist.

To be a good leader, you must act according to the situation. What you’ve read about a successful Silicon Valley CEO doing may not apply to your team in a retail industry, and doing exactly what Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group) would do may not help with your start-up software company.

Both situational leadership theory1 and the contingency theory of leadership2 state that whether or not your leadership style works depends on the interaction between the style and the situation. These theories provide easy ways for leaders to identify the types of situations and how to react in them. To know your current circumstance, you need to know: what types of tasks are to be performed (structured or unstructured), the state of your leader-member relationships, the amount of power you have as a leader and if a subordinate is competent, motivated and committed to the job.

After identifying the situation, you can use the two theories to determine the appropriate leadership style for the situation. Most of these prescribed leadership styles can be traced back to the two categories discovered by the Ohio State Leadership Studies: consideration and initiating structures. Allow me to explain.

For example, if you are a military officer who is assigned to train newly enlisted soldiers (the task is highly structured, you have high authority over the newcomers, the leader-member relationships haven’t been built and the new soldiers are highly incompetent, not motivated nor committed), you probably should adopt the “initiating structures” style of leadership instead of a more people-oriented approach. Another example, if you are assigned as the leader of a project team that consists of several coworkers who are high performers with extensive experience (the task is less structured, you have low authority over your coworkers, your relationship with them is close and your coworkers are highly competent, motivated and committed), a people-oriented leadership style may be the best choice in this case.

Although these two leadership theories are quite popular in both the academic and applied fields, many have argued that they have their own flaws. One major criticism is that both over-simplify a real leadership situation. Meanwhile, the leadership styles that are recommended to use in each situation are simply not enough to deal with the situation described. Like we discussed in another blog article, it is best to use different styles in combination.

Furthermore, there are still arguments about the effectiveness of the prescribed leadership styles for each situation. However, these theories have helped raise leaders’ awareness of the importance of adapting their leadership styles based on the tasks to be performed, subordinates’ experience and abilities, and other situational characteristics.

Therefore, every leadership approach should be tailored to meet the unit’s unique background and needs. Instead of relying on generically prescribed methods, modern organizations should consider using scientific methods to diagnose the situation and choose the leadership capabilities and skills that best fit each unit. By doing this, the organization can ensure the success of its effort in developing the leaders and eventually improve the overall leadership outcomes.

In my next blog, I’m going to talk about the scientific approach to leadership development.


  1. Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of organization behavior: Utilizing human resources. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.
  2. Fiedler, F. (1971). Validation and extension of the contingency model of leadership effectiveness: A review of empirical findings. Psychological Bulletin, 76, 128- 148.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.