Jan. 10, 2001 by Jack King NMSU News Center
Researchers have been trying to describe what makes an effective leader since before Aristotle, but a New Mexico State University professor who co-authored a new book on leadership says the description is not all that mysterious.
“Leadership effectiveness is determined by what leaders do, not by some inherent personal characteristic,” Jon Howell said. “I’m not saying personal characteristics don’t help; they certainly do. But leaders have to adapt their behavioral styles to fit the situations in which they find themselves.”
Howell, an NMSU management professor, wrote “Understanding Behaviors for Effective Leadership” with Dan Costley, who was also an NMSU management professor. Costley died Nov. 6, five months after the book’s publication by Prentice Hall.
Saying effective leaders are adaptable is not new in the field, although researchers have not always done so, Howell said.
“In the 50s writers on the subject got stuck looking for one pattern of behavior that defined a good leader. Well, there isn’t one stereotype of leadership which fits every situation,” he said.
“Since the 70s, the focus has been on ‘contingency theories of leader behavior’ — theories that argue leaders’ effectiveness depends on the match between their behavior and personal characteristics and the characteristics of their followers and of the situations in which they find themselves,” he added.
Contingency theories are an improvement over “one best style” approaches, Howell said, because they recognize there are different styles of leadership and that the effectiveness of any style can vary with circumstances. But, he said, some of the theories have not been revised for 20 years, while others are untested by objective studies or offer conflicting advice about what leaders — or potential leaders — should do in specific situations.
In “Understanding Behaviors for Effective Leadership,” Howell and Costley list five major behavior patterns of effective leaders — supportive behavior, directive behavior, participative behavior, reward and punishment behavior and charismatic behavior — plus two newly recognized patterns they call “boundary spanning” and “building social exchanges.”
They devote two chapters apiece to each behavior, one chapter describing and giving examples of the behaviors, then a second showing in what circumstances it is effective and in what circumstances it is ineffective, or even dysfunctional.
For example, Howell said, Dwight Eisenhower was a superb example of “participative leadership,” especially in his role as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. Eisenhower treated the other Allied leaders with patience, gave each a chance to state his point of view fully and was able to convince his counterparts he approached problems objectively. As a result, he succeeded in uniting the other commanders — several of whom were flamboyant, egotistical men unused to sharing decisions — to reach a common goal.
On the other hand, recent research seems to show that when workers perform highly structured, repetitive tasks or when they work in very large groups that are spread out over large geographical areas participative leadership may be less effective. Participative leaders also may be less effective with apathetic followers or those who willingly accept autocratic decisions, Howell said.
Margaret Thatcher, whose decisiveness and firmly held views helped lead the Conservative Party to election victories in Britain, was a good example of a directive leader. But, after she was in office for a time, her practice of ignoring criticism and making her own decisions without consulting other Conservative leaders, combined with a shift in British public sentiment, led her own party to force her resignation in 1990.
“A leader’s behavior must match the situation, and the needs of his or her followers,” Howell repeated.
The good news is that, because effective leadership can be described as observable actions, most people can learn those behaviors, along with how to recognize the situations in which they are most appropriate, he added.