Greenwood (1993) describes how in the early 1900s the Father of Scientific Management, Frederick Taylor while not directly writing about leadership in his description of the role of the supervisor introduced the matter of traits and its link to situation. He did so as he described the ideal traits to be found in an effective foreman even while acknowledging that no one person would have all those characteristics and so there was the need for by dividing the work into specialized areas.
Further, from the nineteenth century Thomas Carlyle examined the characteristics of great men “positing that the rise to power is rooted in a heroic set of personal talents, skills or physical characteristics” (Heifetz, 1998:16). At the start of the twentieth century, other scholars (Bird, 1940, Tead and Metcalf, 1920, Barnard, 1938), also affirmed that successful managers have certain traits. However, in 1948 Stogdill’s seminal work highlighted the inconsistencies in the trait theory studies significantly dismantled the theory noting that:
The evidence suggests that leadership is a relation that exists between persons in a social situation, and that persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations.... Stogdill, 1974 cited in Greenwood, 1993:7
Interestingly, Davis (1934) referring to traits noted there was no checklist for success but stated that leadership characteristic “they are necessarily a function of the characteristics and requirements of the leader and the particular situation, as well as the innate capacities of the executive himself” (Davis, 1937 cited in Greenwood, 1993:8). By 1955 Koontz and O’Donnell building on his work posited that the trait theory was of little promise noting that leadership involved the power of persuasion upon followers and that the quality of leadership was impacted by certain environmental factors.
Leadership theory was also influenced by human relation considerations, which emerged around about the same time. These thinkers made the link with leadership as it relates to the leader’s ability to connect with people, to empathise, develop teams and to delegate and emphasized that the follower was central and leadership focused on the needs of the follower. So while the movement did not develop a leadership theory it introduced the linkage between individual needs, observations and group dynamics and appropriate styles of leadership behavior.
Blake and Mouton challenged Davis’s theory of behavior stating that “the dimensions needed for an effective description of operational conduct are attitudinal variables, not behavior variables” (cited in Greenwood, 1993:13). Using the managerial grid and attitudinal variables the writers posited that there was one best way to lead but differing tactics depending on the situation. This premise is not supported by the situational theory, which focuses on many leadership styles which depends on the situation.
In many ways situational theory is a convergence of many schools of thought; although the path to its development has been ‘messy’ and sometimes circuitous. The theory is based on “leadership effectiveness … strongly tied to a leader being demanding and simultaneously sensitive to the needs of the followers” (Greenwood, 1993:14). It predicts leadership performance based on interaction between leadership personality and the leaders control of the situation. In this regard, the theory is a variance with Blake and Mouton’s view of one best style. Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s (1973 ) classical work supports the contingency theory and described seven leadership styles, which were employed depending on interrelatedness of three key issues: forces in the manger, the subordinate...