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Leadership Theories in Organizations: Built Environment Essay

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Updated: Mar 20th, 2021


No known civilization in the history of mankind has ever claimed to exist without leaders. From the ancient Greek civilizations to the 21st-century global arena, leaders have always held the capacity to influence the destiny of their respective societies, institutions, and organizations. However, what amazes many leadership scholars is the admittance that the formal study of leadership is a relatively new phenomenon when evaluated in relation to other fields of interest (Bennis, 2007). Large volumes of literature have been generated from the scholarly works of researchers interested in the study of leadership. As leadership scholars become more proficient in the field of administration, innovative definitions and paradigms of leadership have been introduced, and new strategies intended to assist individuals in understanding the concept of leadership have been adopted (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). Nonetheless, the field of administration remains largely unformed despite the numerous studies that have been accomplished on the topic (Hackman & Wageman, 2007). This essay purposes to critically evaluate and discuss some of the existing leadership theories in organizations while laying a particular emphasis on the built environment.

According to Hackman & Wageman (2007), the concept of leadership is “extraordinarily important both as a social phenomenon and as a subject for scholarly research and theory” (p. 43). Bennis (2007) argued that leadership affects and influences the quality of our lives to the core, yet individuals always tend to forget its immense importance. Indeed, Bennis was of the opinion that “…leadership always matters, and it has never mattered more than it does now” (p. 2). Despite the importance, there are no generally established descriptions of what leadership is, no overriding paradigm for studying the concept, and there exists minimal concurrence about the best approaches for developing and exercising leadership (Hackman & Wageman, 2007). This scenario calls for a critical evaluation of the existing leadership theories with a view of demonstrating how these theories can be used to comprehend leadership in organizations, especially in the built environment.

Defining Leadership

As already mentioned, leadership scholars have, to date, failed to come up with an all-encompassing definition of leadership. It is imperative to note that leadership is one of the most significant characteristics of organizational context. Nonetheless, defining the concept has remained a challenging undertaking, with much of the existing literature on leadership defining it in relation to the context and field of use (Avolio, 2007). According to Giuliani & Kurson (2002), leadership can be defined as the manner and approach of offering direction, implementing plans and strategies, and motivating individuals. It can also be described as a process of social influence in which one individual can solicit the assistance and support of the other in the execution of a common task. Northouse (2004) argues that leadership can be defined in terms of the focus of group processes, personality perspective, actions or behaviors, power relationships between the leader and followers, skills perspective, and as an instrument of goal achievement.

Contrary to popular belief, “leadership isn’t mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having charisma or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few” (Kotter, 1998 p. 37). Many people have been quick to equate leadership with management. However, the two plays distinctive and complementary functions in the organizational context. While power is about dealing with complexity in organizations, leadership, by contrast, entails negotiating with change (Kotter, 1998). While both management and leadership are critically important to achieving success, organizational leadership has become more critical in recent years since the modern business environment has increasingly become competitive and volatile. Consequently, more changes in organizations always require more supervision.

A brief overview of Leadership in the Built Environment

According to Chan & Chan (2005), one of the most significant areas receiving comparatively little attention in the built environment is leadership. However, it is essential to note that direction in the construction industry is as critically important as leadership in other critical sectors of the economy, such as banking and finance. As is often the case in different sectors, leadership is often regarded as a social exchange course of action in a leader-follower relationship in the built environment. Chan and Chan argue that direction, in conjunction with issues of socio-economic and cultural variations, has been found to inflict considerable influence on the performance of construction projects, including determining the success of projects in the built environment.

Business entities in the built industry have been facing enormous problems and difficult situations in today’s swiftly changing environment. As it is the case in other sectors, such pressures and challenges have ultimately urged business leaders in the built environment to “become more responsive and flexible, to proactively adapt and keep pace with the changes” (Chan & Chan, 2005 p. 413). The built environment, also known as the construction industry, is remarkably characterized by its pulsating and rapidly changing climate on a global level. In such circumstances, an adequate understanding of the leadership theories by organizational leaders in the built environment is essential to ensure efficiency, good working relations, and success in the projects undertaken. Indeed, good leadership is needed more in the built areas than in many other sectors since it is always the norm of professional personnel in this field to meet specific requirements of time, budget, quality, and safety. According to Kotter (1998), more changes in organizations always require more leadership. The nature of the jobs in the built environment is characterized by recurrent changes in working environments, and therefore, good leadership is needed to make the person more flexible, receptive, and adaptive to deciphering challenges with new strategies of thinking (Chan & Chan, 2005). This calls for a thorough understanding of leadership theories.

Leadership Theories in Organizational context

There are as numerous theories of leadership as there are descriptions and definitions of leadership. While the multiple leadership theories can be graded into several groups, numerous variations and discrepancies exist in each sub-category of leadership theory (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). According to Northouse (2004), early leadership theories centered on the qualities and characteristics that distinguished leaders from their followers, while subsequent leadership theories focussed on other variables such as the leadership context, situational influences, and skill level. For purposes of this discussion, various leadership theories will be classified into several broad groups, namely the grand man theories, trait theories, behavioral theories, situational theories, management theories, relationship theories, and participative theories.

The Great Man Theories

The grand man theories are founded on the assumption that the capacity of leadership is intrinsic – that leader is born, not made (Northouse, 2004). These theories are also based on the belief that great leaders will arise in societies once they are needed to do so by existing conditions. Most of these theories often depict leaders as heroic and mythic. During the conception of these theories, leadership was primarily considered to be a quality that was innately male, hence the term “Great Man.” Although these theories have been reflected in military and political leadership, their effectiveness in the 21st century built environment remains somewhat limited. In the modern business environment, any leadership theory that chiefly relies on patriarchal dispositions and family pedigree to lead organizations rather than laid down strategies in leader-follower relations is bound to fail. According to Avolio (2007) and Kotter (1998), organizational leadership is no longer viewed in the context of mystical or mysterious powers.

Trait Theories

Trait theorists are in general consensus that individuals are born with some intrinsic characteristics that are predominantly suitable for leadership. The theory further assumes that individuals who make good leaders are born with the right combination of traits (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). According to Northouse (2004), early studies on leadership were mostly based on the identification of characteristics and traits thought to be inherent to successful leaders. Some of the character traits identified as critical to leaders include adaptability to situations, alertness to social environments, ambition and accomplishment-orientation, Assertiveness and decisiveness, dependability, dominant, energetic, persistent, high levels of stress tolerance, self-confidence, and willingness to take responsibility (Northouse, 2004).

According to the trait theory, some of the skills possessed by leaders include cleverness, conceptually skilled, creativeness, good communication skills, diplomacy and tact, high level of organization, persuasiveness, knowledge about group tasks, and excellent social skills. Other essential traits identified by trait theorists include emotional stability and composure, capacity to admit error, good interpersonal skills, and a comprehensive intellectual breadth. Bennis (2007) seems to agree with the assertions made by trait theorists but includes other traits such as creativity and charisma. However, Bennis argues that “psychologists have not sorted out which traits define leaders or whether leadership exists outside of specific situations” (p. 3)

The above character traits and skills are fundamental constituents of leadership in any field or sector in society, including the built environment. Indeed, leaders in the built environment must be flexible enough to adapt to diverse situations and social environments since most of their work entails working in cross-cultural environments (Chan & Chan, 2005). For example, many architects, structural engineers, and building constructors are often required to work on foreign assignments that require them to relocate to another country in line with the needs and requirements of the contract or project. As such, these character traits and skills will go a long way in assisting the leaders in the built environment to not only lead and manage individuals that are culturally and socially diverse but also to become more receptive and flexible to the following changes (Chan & Chan, 2005). Leaders in the built environment must have the capacity to adjust and keep pace with the ever-changing environment. However, this theory ignores situational and learned influences in leadership. Avolio (2007) decries such leadership theories that “frequently focus on the leaders to the exclusion of other equally important components of the leadership process” (p. 25).

Behavioral theories

Behavioral theories contradict the Great Man theories in assuming that leaders are made, not born. Behavioral approaches also believe that successful leadership is ultimately based on definable and learnable behavior on the part of the leader. According to Northouse (2004), behavioral theories of organizational leadership are interested in evaluating the actions of leaders rather than seeking some inborn character traits, internal states, or capabilities. Deeply rooted in behaviorism, these theories suggest that individuals can actively learn the desired leadership traits and characteristics through teaching and observation (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). Behavioral approaches can be described as postmodernist by their recognition of the fact that effective leadership is achieved through a learning process rather than inherent capabilities. Behavioral theorists also view leadership skills as a pattern of motives rather than a set of intrinsic traits. Consequently, behavioral theories open the channels to leadership development and training.

Some of the most commonly used behavioral theories include the role theory and managerial grid theory (Northouse, 2004). The former theory assumes that individuals define roles and expectations for themselves and other individuals based on social learning and reading processes. In the built environment, leaders must always thrive on forming expectations about the responsibilities that they and their followers will play to succeed in a specific project. The leaders in the built environment must have the capacity to ingeniously encourage their followers to operate within the role expectations that have been designed for them. The managerial grid theory is chiefly concerned with the power and ability of a leader to strike a balance between taking care of the needs of followers and getting the work done (Northouse, 2004). This is an essential concept in leadership within the built environment since it determines the success and failure levels of building projects. The managerial grid has several variables that include poor management, authority-compliance, country club management, middle of the road management, and team management (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). Many leaders operating within the built environment, especially in developing countries, have been known to use the authority-compliance variable to get work done. In this variable, strong emphasis is put on getting the job done, but with little or no concern at all for the employees who are mostly semi-skilled and impoverished. Reliable experiences point to the fact that most Indian contractors use this particular variable that focuses on the efficiency of completing a project at the expense of employee satisfaction. Consequently, this form of leadership is mostly viewed as a form of exploitation (Northouse, 2004).

Participative Theories

Participative leadership theories assume that involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process enhances the understanding of all the issues affected by the individuals who must carry out the activities (Northouse, 2004). The basic presuppositions of the theories suggest that not only do individuals become more committed to actions that involve them in decision-making processes, but they also compete less and corroborate more when they work on mutual goals. According to the theories, decisions made by all stakeholders are more binding than decisions that are made by one individual. The latter assumption reinforces Avolio’s (2007) assertion that leadership must also be viewed in terms of the followers as well as the context in which it takes place. Some of the most commonly used participative theories include Lewin’s leadership styles and Likert’s leadership styles.

In the built environment, a participative leader must never be seen to take autocratic decisions. Instead, he must involve other organizational followers in the leadership process, a situation that Avolio (2007) correlates with improved organizational performance and success. This form of leadership is useful in many fields that utilize highly skilled and structured labor, such as architecture and building Technology, whereby the employees are given an opportunity to propose a decision but the group leader holds the final say on its implementation depending on a multiplicity of other factors such as viability, cost, and timeframe (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). In some participatory leadership models, the leader may decide to delegate all decision making processes to the team (Northouse, 2004). However, this is rarely the case in the built environment due to the nature of the tasks handled and the experience required (Chan & Chan, 2005). A participatory leader must reveal a well-ingrained capacity to sell a particular organizational concept to the team, including the ability to clearly define and describe the objectives and aspirations of such an idea. However, corporate leaders practicing participative leadership must never ask for opinions from employees and then go ahead to overlook them as such a scenario is more likely to occasion cynicism and perceptions of betrayal. Consecutive studies and experience point to the fact that participative leadership may fail to work in less structured, low skilled, labor-intensive built environments as the high number of employees may fail to make a decision within the required timeframe (Chan & Chan, 2005).

Situational Leadership Theories

Situational theories suggest that organizational leaders choose the most excellent course of action based on a multiplicity of situational factors (Northouse, 2004). Some of the most commonly used situational theories in organizational context include Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of Situational Leadership, the Normative Model by Vroom and Yetton, and the Path-Goal Theory of Leadership by Robert House. According to situational theorists, situational decisions are affected by a wide allay of factors, including the motivation and capacity of followers, leader-follower relationships, leader’s perceptions of his or her follower’s, leader’s perceptions of own self, stress levels, mood swings, and other situational factors (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). Some situational variables that are required for effective leadership include subordinate effort, subordinate ability and capacity, role clarity, organization of work, cooperation and cohesiveness, resources and support, and external coordination.

The above critical points on situational leadership reinforce Bennis (2007) assertions that leaders can never exist in a vacuum. According to Bennis, “leadership is grounded in a relationship. In its simplest form, it is a tripod – a leader or leaders, followers, and the common goal they want to achieve” (p. 3). These models of leadership are well represented in the building environment, especially in building construction where leaders mainly concentrate on such influences as developing and reinforcing external relationships, acquirement of resources, managing the demands of subordinates, and managing the existing structure and cultural orientations of the group (Chan & Chan, 2005). In essence, these theories postulate that the actions of a leader within the organizational context are primarily dependent on the characteristics and aspects of the situation in which he operates (Northouse, 2004).

Management Theories

The management theories, also identified as Transactional theories, lay their emphasis on the function of supervision, organization, and team performance (Northouse, 2004). The concept of leadership in many of these theories is based on an arrangement of reward and punishment. Most of these theories are often utilized in business organizations with a view of rewarding successful employees and reprimanding failures. Transactional theories assume that a transparent chain of command assists organizations to function correctly. Transactional leadership also requires subordinates must follow the rules set by organizational leaders since their contractual agreement facilitates them to cede all authority to their leaders (Giuliani & Kurson, 2002). Although punishments are not declared openly, they are well understood by subordinates, and formal channels of discipline are usually entrenched in the rules and regulations of the organization. Rewards include salary and other benefits.

In the built environment, transactional leadership models are rampantly used to formalize leader-employee relations. The subordinates receive a salary package and other benefits at the expense of ceding their authority to the leaders. Once work is allocated by the transactional leader, the associates are considered to be entirely accountable for the job, whether or not they have the capacity and resources needed to carry it out (Northouse, 2004). Ultimately, the subordinate is considered to err when things don’t work out as initially planned. According to Northouse, most transactional leaders often utilize the principle of management by exception, meaning that processes and activities working usually are left undisturbed. A study conducted by Chan & Chan (2005) on building experts in the construction industry revealed that the three transactional factors, namely contingent reward, passive management by exception and active rule by exception, are considerably associated with leadership outcomes of employee satisfaction and motivation, extra effort on the part of employees and leader effectiveness.

Relationship Theories

Relationship theories lay particular emphasis on the working relations formed due to constant interactions between organizational leaders and followers. There are also known as transformational theories. Transformational leaders motivate and encourage individuals by assisting them to recognize the significance and higher good of the task (Northouse, 2004). While transformational leaders are mainly centered on the performance of organizational members, they are also concerned with assisting individual employees in fulfilling their respective potentials in the corporate context. Examples of relationship theories include Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory, Burns’ Transformational Leadership theory, and Kouzes & Posner’s Leadership Participation Theory.

Transformational theories have been rampantly used in the built environment. In any particular field of leadership, individuals have been known to go after a person who inspires them (Northouse, 2004). Leaders have also been known to utilize enthusiasm and energy to get things done in the organizational setting. In essence, transformational leaders care about their employees’ wellbeing while at the same time ensures that work is done to the required level. They must therefore be able to develop the vision, sell it to their followers, and lead from the front. The study by Chan & Chan (2005) on building professionals in the built environment revealed that Bass’ transformational leadership theory led to higher levels of organizational performance and employee satisfaction than transactional leadership.


From the above discussion on leadership theories, it is clear that the agenda of leadership studies and research has been evolving from a focal point of internal dispositions and innate characteristics associated with successful leaders to broader suggestions that emphasize leadership behaviors, attributes, and the social contexts in which both leaders and followers are enthusiastically entrenched and interact over time (Avolio, 2007). As already mentioned, there exists a wide range of literature on leadership, which remains undifferentiated. The immense task ahead for leadership scholars of the 21st century is to come up with useful benchmarks that will evaluate direction in the context of both leaders and followers. As Bennis (2007) argued, leadership does not subsist in a vacuum. It is up to the leading scholars to come up with a new leadership model that will try to answer the needs and requirements of the ever-changing business environment while taking care of all the aspects that come into play to make a particular leader effective.

List of References

April, K. A., & Hill, S. (2000) The Uncertainty and ambiguity of Leadership in the 21st Century. South African Journal of Business Management, 31(2), 45-52.

Avolio, B.J. (2007) Promoting more Integrative Strategies for Leadership Theory-Building. American Psychologist, 62(1), 25-33.

Bennis, W. (2007). The Challenges of Leadership in the Modern World. American Psychologist, 62(1), 2-5.

Chan, A.T.S., & Chan, E.H.W. (2005) Impact of Perceived Leadership Styles on Work Outcomes: A Case of Building Professionals. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 131(4), 413-422.

Giuliani, R.W., & Kurson, K. (2002) Leadership, 1st ed. Hyperion. ISBN: 9780786868414.

Hackman, J.R., & Wageman, R. (2007) Asking the right questions about leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 43-47.

Kotter, J.P. (1998) What Leaders Really Do. In: H. Mintzberg (Eds) Harvard Business Review on Leadership. Harvard Business Press. ISBN: 9780875848839.

McNamara, C. (2008). Web.

Milstead, J.A., & Furlong, E. (2005) Handbook of Nursing Leadership: Creative Skills for a Culture of Safety. Jones & Bartlett Publishers: ISBN 9780763734381.

Northouse, P.G. (2004) Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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