Review of leadership theories

  • Attitudes to leadership
  • Philosophical approaches

No book can list every situation an outdoor adventure leader may face, nor can there be a ‘correct’ response to every people management situation. This implies a warning to leaders not to expect simple, standard answers to every question. While there are general guidelines available to shape responses to certain situations or classes of leadership issues, more specialised skills and knowledge are generally acquired through in-depth field experience. For example, some leaders have done a great deal of work with school groups; others have worked mainly with adult beginner groups, and a few have particular experience with disabled groups. These practising specialists know more about their own field than can be found in any text. The aspiring leader can learn a great deal from such people, but must recognise that their methods and responses may only be appropriate in a narrow range of circumstances.

Attitudes to leadership

Early attitudes to leadership were strongly influenced by feudal and military models. The leader was imposed from above and was expected to be blessed with certain personality traits which would enable him (and they were nearly always male) to cope with every problem. Unswerving loyalty and obedience was expected from every member of his party. The leader was expected to lead brilliantly to success, or die gloriously in failure.

People are now much more aware of leadership performance, and equally ready to criticise poor performance. This critical climate has stimulated considerable research and thought on what constitutes good and bad leadership in given situations. Much has been done in the area of business leadership, but relatively little has focussed on adventure leadership.

Philosophical approaches

Each new approach to the topic has tended to extend or replace earlier theories, but older theories can provide a useful contribution.

Trait approach
The advocates of trait theories believed that leadership is basically hereditary. This approach differentiates leaders from non-leaders by physical and psychological attributes. It largely assumes that leaders are born and not made. The evidence against this position is very strong. If it were true, there would be no point in attempting to train leaders. The trait approach does help individuals to focus on their own attributes. The recognition of these personal qualities is an important starting point in leadership training.

Behavioural theories
Some writers have argued that leadership is determined by behaviour. If a person in a group behaves in certain ways then the rest of the group will see that person as the leader. The most obvious example of this is when someone takes a dominant or particularly effective role in assisting a group deal with a crisis. The group may begin to disregard the appointed leader and turn to the effective person.

Followers approach
This states that the most effective leaders are those most able to satisfy the ambitions of followers. The focus is on the followers’ needs, rather than on the leader’s skills. Leaders will change as the group’s needs change.

Situation approach
Another variant of the followers’ concept, proposing that circumstances dictate which individual is to emerge as the leader. Different skills are required in different situations, and the person with the requisite skills will arise as leader of the group. Leaders change as circumstances change.

Contingency approach
The contingency approach suggests that personal styles and situational characteristics combine to determine leadership, requiring a match between styles and situations to determine the group leader. An example of this was the strongly forceful style of Winston Churchill which suited the war situation but was unacceptable in peacetime.

Dynamic approach
The dynamic approach to leadership recognises that leaders can adapt to changing situations. It emphasises the persuasive and adaptive nature of the leadership process and the need to make choices. Leaders must recognise that needs and circumstances are constantly changing. The effective leader has both the perception to recognise these changes and the versatility of leadership skills to adapt. Provided that the lead-er’s style and responses change appropriately to changing circumstances then the same leader will remain effective and acceptable.

Leadership training programs have, over many years, used some or all of these leadership theories. It is now generally accepted that leading is a dynamic process involving choices of behaviour. Other theoretical approaches based upon this general concept are examined in greater detail in following chapters.