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



Why does who eats first or last matter?

An Overview of
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t
By Simon Sinek

Sinek explored not only the idea of why some teams pull together to become stronger and more successful, he also examined the brain chemistry behind it.  As a former Biology teacher, I’m intrigued by the number of times during my quest to learn more about leadership that hormones are referenced.  As a leader or a follower, our bodies respond chemically to our experiences.  It turns out how we feel affects how we trust and in turn the leader or the follower we become.

Sinek uses moving real life examples to thoroughly engage the reader.  One of my most striking memories of the book is about the circle of safety. When our leaders create a safe, trusting work place, we can all work more effectively with our teams and achieve greater overall success.  Remove the circle of safety and out of our evolutionary need to survive our primal brain takes over and we are forced to spend our energy looking out for ourselves rather than contributing to a team. Sinek explained that you can feel the circle of safety  – you know what you do is valued, your leaders have your back and you know you belong. Leaders, Sinek emphasized, “are responsible for how wide the Circle of Safety extends” (p. 23).  It’s only effective if everyone is included.

Endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are the four primary chemcials that contribute to our body’s positive feelings or happy state as Sinek referred. The first two are the selfish ones designed to ensure your survival as a person, wheres, the second two, serotonin and oxytocin, help you to socialize and cooperate with others (p. 37-38). Endorphins mask the pain and enable you to keep going while dopamine gives you the feeling of accomplishment and makes you want to do it again (p. 41).  Serotonin, on the other hand, helps us work hard to give back to the group.  The more you give back the more you are seen as a leader (p. 49). Oxytocin is the trust hormone, “it makes us social” (p. 49). Mix in a little cortisol to up the stress and anxiety factor and you have quite a cocktail depending on the culture that you create.

Sinek explained that overtime alphas emerge in our social hierarchies and we follow because these leaders are expected to protect us.  It’s part of the social contract. Great leaders do what they need to help those in their care.  The accolades and spotlight continue to be offered by the people as a thank-you for their leadership. Leaders who forget that won’t lead for long.  As Sinek noted, “the people always have the power” (p. 67) and the true power lies in realizing that we are all responsible for protecting the circle of safety.  While increased authority enables formal leaders to do more. Leadership is about the responsibility to do more for others, it’s looking after those in your care.  Sinek concluded it’s something we can all do regardless of rank.  Look after those in your circle (p. 215-216).

Leadership Connections: 

  • Sinek offered biological connections to explain why we respond the way that we do.  He also noted the impact our small choices have on whether or not we rise as leaders or fall from grace.   As formal or informal leaders, it’s important to consider the type of working environment that we create.  I’ve worked for both types of leaders and can tell you it’s exhausting when the circle of safety is in jeopardy. When people are reduced to numbers and the toxic fear begins to spread, no one wins.  Your primitive brain takes over in an attempt to ensure your survival.  All your energy goes into managing your stress and protecting yourself and your work suffers.
  • As leaders, we need to step back and consider the environments that we are creating and consider the needs of our followers.  The more I learn about leadership the more interconnections there are between different leadership theories. They all share similarities, but what makes a good leader great is not a simple as it seems.  It’s how you put all of that knowledge into action each day that determines the difference you will make.

You may also want to check out his TED Talks: 


Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. New York : Penguin.



Summary by Key Takeaways – http://keytakeaways.io/books/leaders-eat-last/

10 Big Ideas from Leaders Eat Last – http://www.slideshare.net/DeanBokhari/10-big-ideas-from-leaders-eat-last-by-simon-sinek


Summary – Leadership Theory & Competency Frameworks

Summary of
A Review of Leadership Theory and Competency Frameworks

By. R. Bolden, J. Gosling, A. Marurano and P. Dennison
June 2003

If you are looking for a quick overview of leadership theories, Bolden, Gosling, Marurano and Dennison succinctly review the key points of a variety of leadership theories ranging from trait based through to transformational leadership.  Each section provided a quick summary of the key theoretical aspects and touched on a variety of leadership theories including:

  • trait based leadership
  • behavioral
  • situational
  • contingency
  • transactional
  • transformational

Of interest is how the focus of the research has expanded to not only include the leader but the followers and situational context.  The authors noted that there is no one size fits all leadership style and each theory lends itself to different styles, followers and situations (p. 8).   Bolden et. al. reviewed several leadership models and competency frameworks by notable organizations such as Federal Express, Lufthansa, Shell, Ministry of Defence, and the National College for School Leadership.  Each framework highlighted priorities and characteristics unique to its developing company, yet there were many similarities when you moved beyond the choice of language descriptors.

Bolden et. al. selected and briefly over viewed six leadership development initiatives each designed to develop certain characteristics in their participants.  This section provided links for follow up.  Next, the authors examined how to provide governance to the different roles within legal and ethical frameworks.

Lastly, Bolden et. al. reminded us to be thoughtful when considering leadership theories as many theories fail to mention the role of the followers and the complimentary leadership skills needed for success. I agreed with their conclusion that many leadership attributes have been identified and frameworks developed but most importantly the value lies in the process of developing a model.  What seems to be missing in much of the leadership reading that I have done so far is as Bolden et.al. noted.  Where do we go once theories and frameworks have been developed?  What are the highest impact strategies that help build effective leadership? And is the process ever really finished or does the framework continually need to evolve?

Although somewhat dated (June 2003), the most helpful part of this article  for me was the overview of theories at the start and reflection on leadership at the end.  As I read through each theory, I began to see connections to both the education and business worlds in which I work.  Each perspective offers an insight into characteristics that will enable you to be considered more leader like, but each theory’s strengths apply to different types of situations, followers and organizations.  Perhaps it’s my eclectic learning style, but at this point I’m most likely to add the relevant points from a variety of theories to my leadership toolbox.  Leadership and what makes a person a leader is much more complicated than it first appears.

I wonder how often we stop to think about why we follow the leaders we do and does who we follow say more about us than the leaders themselves?


Bolden, R., Gosling, J., Marturano, A., & Dennison, P. (2003). A Review of Leadership Theory    and Competency Frameworks. Crossmead: University of Exeter. Retrieved from http://www.fcsh.unl.pt/docentes/luisrodrigues/textos/Liderança.pdf

A Summary of Leadership: Current Theories, Research, and Future Directions

A Summary of
Leadership: Current Theories, Research,
and Future Directions

By Bruce J. Avolio, Fred O. Walumbwa, and Todd J. Weber

Avolio, Walumbwa and Weber provided a detailed integrative review of leadership theories and current research paired with suggestions for future research.  The authors reflected on key leadership theories including:

  • Authentic Leadership
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • New Genre leadership
  • Complexity leadership
  • Shared, Collective or Distributed leadership
  • Leader-Member Exchange
  • Followership & Leadership
  • Substitutes for Leadership
  • Servant Leadership
  • Spirituality and Leadership
  • Cross Cultural Leadership
  • E-Leadership

Interestingly, Avolio, Walumbwa and Weber (2009) noted a holistic trend in leadership research that has shifted to include a stronger focus on “not only the leader, but also on followers, peers, supervisors, work setting/context, and culture” (p. 422), as well as, positive forms of leadership. Examining the actual process of leadership and alternative ways to examine leadership were also mentioned.  The authors commented that we are likely to see a greater use of mixed method research design including a greater emphasis on qualitiative data collection (p. 441-442).

Are leaders born or made?

Avolio et. al. noted preliminary evidence suggested 30% of leadership style is genetic.  The other 70% depended on life context including your home life and those around you at work (p. 425).

Does it matter if you are more interested in learning about leadership?

Avolio et.al. explained one’s motivation to learn or developmental readiness does impact your learning.  Individuals who are are more motivated will “embrace trigger events that stimulate their thinking about their own development as an opportunity tot improve their leadership effectiveness” (p. 426)

The authors explained the role of the follower is an important area for continued reasearch.


– In “The Switch” Chip and Dan Heath talk about the importance of people adopting identities.  Avolio cited the Lord & Brown (2001) model of how leaders can influence follower behavior.  The first was relating to the follower’s values.  The second point noted leaders “activating a specific identity to which followers can relate, creating a collective identity” (p. 427).  Identities change over time so the identity leaders choose to share can impact the effectiveness of the change that they are trying to implement.

Leadership Connections:

This article introduced the concept of E-Leadership or virtual leadership “where individuals or groups are geographically dispersed and interactions are mediated by technology.” (p. 440).  Avolio et. al. explained that e-leadership comes with it’s own set of challenges including different time zones, communication challenges, variance in hardware and software, as well as, local priorities (p.440).  Furthermore, traditional leadership models, which as Zigurs noted are built primarily on face to face interactions, may not fully explain how virtual teams work (p. 440)

Business Link:

  • Color By Amber link – Avolio et.al. explained shared leadership as “an emergent state where team members collectively lead each other” (p. 431). The authors noted that this type of leadership develops throughout the lifespan of the team and further develops the interpersonal relationships of the team members. Because Color By Amber launched in Canada in August 2014, I had the opportunity to be part of the launch.  This included the opportunity to work with leaders across Canada.  In response to team member questions and the desire to grow a positive sharing culture where team members empowered each other, our Canadian leaders opted for a culture of shared leadership which continues today on our Canadian Team Facebook group.  It’s not a hierarchy.  It’s a culture of sharing regardless of upline, downline or a different team’s line. The purpose is to help each other grow stronger and provide better service to our customers.
  • The section on e-leadership is one that I am currently pursuing.  I wonder as the authors noted how does e-leadership work?  How do you build the know, like and trust factor?  This article was also written in 2009, which means that there are tremendously different types of technology available to facilitate face to face distance interactions.

Overall this article provided a detailed, academic, overview of different theories of leadership and related research.  I appreciated the author’s future focus summaries which pointed out areas where more research is still needed.

Annual Review of Psychology

Vol. 60: 421-449 (Volume publication date January 2009)
DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163621

PDF: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163621

Summary of Skills You Need – Leadership Website

An Overview of
Skills You Need – Leadership

This website explains both the traditional and more recent definitions of a leader, as well as, summarizing Daniel Goleman’s 6 styles of leadership (Coercive, Pace-setting, Authoritative, Affliative, Democratic & Coaching).  The website goes on to suggest steps to develop your leadership style, which includes a reminder that “the best leaders create other leaders, not followers” (Develop Your Leadership).  Ethical leadership is covered in the next section and draws from Stephen Covey’s four levels of principle centered leadership and suggested the concept of inside out thinking will change your perspective.  Leader or manager?  Have you stopped to think about the difference?  This website goes on to explain that leadership is not the same as management. There’s a difference in perspective and how we think about the challenges we face.  While many leaders are managers, not all managers are leaders.  The website explained a brief overview of leadership theories and how they have evolved since the early 1900s. The leadership section wraps up with an interesting overview of what it means to be an entrepreneur and the skills most often demonstrated by entrepreneurs.

This website offered a quick overview of leadership and its various components.  Each page offered links to further skill development within the larger skill development website. Pages often included embedded advertisements along with the opportunity to purchase more detailed books/training from the website. Regardless of the ads and option to purchase this website provided an interesting introduction to leadership and offered connections to other research.

I found the entrepreneurship section interesting as I’m also a home based business owner and could relate to the aspects mentioned. In the entrepreneurial skills section, the writers quoted Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, “I think if you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to dream big and then dream bigger” (Skills You Need – Leadership – point #3). It reminded me of what Talley Goodson, Founder of Color By Amber, shared with us on our last evening in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. We had just spent 2 days meeting and learning from the artisans that create our intricate, Mexican interlayers.  As he shared part of his life’s journey, how he built the company from scratch and why what we do makes a difference, he said anyone can make a difference.  The reason that some people have a bigger impact is because they dream bigger and bigger.  They see the vision on a broader scale and they go for it.

Leadership depends not only on the individual but your team and the changing contexts that we live in.  A true leader understands the situation and their team and consciously or unconsciously chooses a style that best matches the needs of the situation.

SkillsYouNeed (2016) What is a Leader? [online] available at http://www.skillsyouneed.com/lead/leader.html (Accessed July 7 2016)