I heard a leadership joke while listening to the radio the other day. The voice over the airwaves questioned whether leaders were born or made. To which he clarified, that everyone is “born.” Does that mean anyone can be a leader?
Early leadership theories heavily relied on trait theories, or the idea that some leaders have an inherent ability to lead based on some biological gift. On the one hand, this theory is comforting in the sense that it inspires great confidence in our leaders. “Surely this person was born to lead!” This line of thought makes it easier to follow leaders, as they have something that majority of the population simply does not possess. On the other hand, these theories make leadership largely unattainable for the vast majority of people.
More recent theories have counteracted this initial theory. One such theory is Fielder’s Contingency Theory. This theory claims that being a successful leader is less about a person’s ability to lead in any situation and instead about how certain people are better suited to leading in specific situations (PSU World Campus, 2011). This concept takes the black and white concept of leadership presented by the trait theories and introduces shades of gray. Depending on the situation that a person is placed in, their ability to be an effective leader will vary.
So, can anyone be a leader? The contingency theory certainly opens up the door to that possibility, but at the same time it implies being a leader is more difficult than initially assumed. Just because someone has been a leader before does not guarantee success. Instead, the contingency theory suggests that in order to find success as a leader, it is imperative to be well matched to the organization you are trying to lead (PSU World Campus, 2011). This detail is one of the greatest weaknesses of the contingency theory because of the ramifications it has for businesses the difficulty in pursuing a “perfect match.”
Ultimately, leadership theories are meant to inform our understanding of leadership not dictate it. By drawing on multiple theories we can come to a greater understanding of how to be leaders in society today because every theory holds some truth. Can anyone be leader? In theory, yes!
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2011). PSYCH 484 Lesson 6: Contingency & Path-Goal Theories.