Learning About Contemporary Leadership Theory

A Review of
Contemporary Leadership Theories
Enhancing the Understanding of the Complexity,
Subjectivity and Dynamic Leadership
By: Dr. Info Winkler

cover    Winkler overviewed a variety of leadership theories in a detailed and methodical approach.  Each section provided an overview of the theory, an explanation of key concepts and ended with a straightforward review of the pros and cons of the theory.  This book serveed as an academic overview of a wide range of leadership theories, which helped me to begin to understand the complexity and diversity of leadership theories.

Winkler reviewed the theory of attribution leadership which examined leadership from the idea that observers attribute certain characteristics to people based on their interactions. Depending on the schema and the interactions we have, we begin to attribute certain leadership characteristics to the individual and in our minds they begin to emerge as a leader.

Next, Winkler examined the psychodynamic approach to leadership which considered how the individual’s personal experiences with leaders and authority figures growing up impacts their perceptions and interactions with potential leaders in their adult life. It’s interesting to consider why you react the way you do to certain types of leaders, perhaps your reaction is more a reflection of your past encounters than you first realize.

The neocharismatic theory includes charismatic, transformational and visionary leadership.   While the type of charismatic leadership depends on the type of follower (i.e. are followers looking for a leader providing strong direction to make up for their low self-concept or a strong leader with which they can identify common mission and value (p. 37).  It turns out charisma is one of the key aspects of transformational leadership. Winkler noted that while transactional theory is motivated by a leader follower exchange in order to get something, transformational leaders consider the needs of their followers and take them along on the journey (p. 40).  Winkler noted that in extreme cases laissez-faire or non-leadership can quickly cause deterioration.

Winkler explained Leader-Member Exchange Theory as the different leader-member relationships.  It turns out members can become part of the in or the out group depending on their willingness to “contribute to the aim of the group beyond the formal role determined by the work contract and the hierarchy” (p. 48).  The more a subordinate contributes the more they become part of the in group. Winkler cited research noting increased employee job satisfaction, lower turnover and increased levels of commitment to the organization when leaders established positive working relationships with their followers (p. 52).

Learning about the Idiosyncracy Credit model of leadership was more reflective of my experiences that I had first considered.   Winkler shared that leadership “is an outcome of shared interpersonal perceptions” (p. 55).  Essentially becoming a leader is the result of your continued interactions with a group in which you build idiosyncasy credit.  Your daily interactions and performance are assessed by the group on an ongoing basis and either your account balance grows or it decreases.  Your individual task competency is linked to the behaviour you are expected to contribute to the group.  My concern here is what happens when that labels sticks and you are capable of more than just your perceived competence?

Over time your credit continues to grow as you uphold the norms, expectations and continue to contribute to the group’s overall goals.  At first, you must conform to build credibility, but once you are seen as a leader you have permission to become more innovative and depart from the norms.  If you deviate to far without producing results, you will bankrupt your account and fall from favor (p. 56-57).  It’s an interesting theory which happens in many types of groups whether it’s direct sales or colleagues in a school.

Winkler explained symbolic leadership exists in the culture of the organization and the symbols that surround you.  Leaders and their actions are interpreted as symbols whch influence the followers based on their understanding of those symbols (p. 59-60).  What symbols surround you?  How are you trained to decode the meaning in the symbols around you?  It makes me think of the idea of branding that’s commonly referenced in social media.

Next up Winkler examined the “daily tactics with which power is built up and applied” (p.65) to those those around them.  What role do micro-politics play in leadership?  He reminded us that although you may tend to withdraw and shake your head just by hearing the word, politics. It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s the how leaders and followers pursue the process that can have positive or negative outcomes.

Lastly, Winkler discussed role theory where the interactions between members of a group are determined by their assigned or assumed role and the idea of social learning theory.   The latter examined the concept of vicarious learning and the role of self confidence in our ability to reproduce the newly learned task. Ideally, Winkler noted leaders should encourage individuals to lead themselves except that things are always that simple.

Winkler consistently provided a detailed, academic overview of each theory.  While extremely thorough in his overview of leadership theories, it can be easy to get lost in the intricacies and complexity of each.   At the end, you will have a greater appreciation for contemporary leadership theories, but this read is for a serious student of leadership.

Leadership Connections:

  • Winkler provided a detailed and thorough overview of several leadership theories. Some were new and others seemed to appear more often in the reading that I’ve done.  In the end, some theories focused more on the leader and others demanded that the followers are what makes leadership possible.
  • While I’m certainly drawn towards some theories more than others, each theory Winkler reviewed had value to offer a growing leader.  The more I read, the greater number of leadership theories I encounter.  Winkler practically pointed out each theory’s pros and cons.  There was no one size fits all theory.  There are theories that we hear about more often in today’s world.   Transformational and servant leadership are two that I’ve heard a number of times in the last month. But regardless of the theory you choose to follow, what’s truly important is that you begin to understand and appreciate the complexity and skills that a strong leader reflects.
  • I’m of an eclectic school of thought.  For you to be the leader that you want to be, you need to learn as much as you can.  Continue to add to your toolbox from all of the strategies and theories that you encounter and don’t discount a theory before you know what it’s about.  Each one offers a different yet somewhat similar perspective and you never know when a diverse toolbox will help you to become a leader worth following.

Winkler, I. (2010). Contemporary Leadership Theories Enhancing the Understanding of the Complexity, Subjectivity and Dynamic of Leadership. Springer: Physcia-Verlag.

Image – Screenshot from Google Books



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