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The Evolution of Leadership: Classical Vs. Contemporary Leadership Styles

The dynamical development of our society is determined by the activity of leaders in different social and business areas. Every aspect of human society has been marked by distinguished people, who gave another dimension to its development through innovations, motivation, organization, and other aspects of effective leadership. The style of leadership is a way of establishing relationships between the leader and the other members of the organization. A leader relies on specific techniques to direct the behavior of his followers. The classical leadership theory distinguishes three styles, depending on the motivational approach of the leader – coercion or incentives. The contemporary leadership theory, on the other hand, recognizes the flexibility of the leader, who changes his style depending on the given situation.

The main criteria we use for distinguishing leadership styles include: the way a leader motivates the followers; the way a leader makes decisions; the leader’s flexibility and ability to adapt to different situations, and the sources of power used for influencing the followers. The universal qualities and attributes that distinguish great leaders include: intelligence, competence to deal with complex tasks, accepting responsibility, action-oriented judgment, exceptional skills to deal with problems and people, decisiveness, and capacity to motivate people.

Based on the way the leader motivates people (through coercion or incentives), the classical theory of leadership distinguishes three styles: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire leadership. An authoritarian leader brings the decisions alone. He does not trust his employees and uses coercion to motivate them to do their job. His influence is based on formal authority, which can lead to dissatisfaction, turn-over, and absenteeism within the organization (Gastil, 1994). The democratic leadership style is characterized by greater involvement of subordinates in decision-making, as well as confidence in their ability to take part of the responsibility in the decision-making process. A democratic leader delegates authority and allows the employees to participate in the decision-making processes. The laissez-faire leadership style is characterized by full involvement of all employees, who feel free to discuss all issues with the leader.

The strict classifications of the classical theory of leadership are ineffective when applied to contemporary leadership styles. According to the contingent theory, the leader’s style should be flexible and adjusted to the specific situations. Fiedler’s contingency model (Fiedler and Garcia, 1987) determines stress as the key factor of leader effectiveness. The other factors that influence a leader’s style include: the requirements of the task; the qualities, expectations, and behavior of the employees, and the organizational culture and policies. When the leader adjusts his style in accordance with the evolving circumstances, he is able to improve his performance, as well as the influence he has on the followers.

There are almost as many definitions and types of leadership as there are leaders in the world. A leader is mainly a person who is able to think and take innovative actions regardless of the ways his industry has changed. The leadership style is determined by the individual’s qualities and actions. Thus, the classical styles of leadership cannot be taken exclusively. A great contemporary leader adjusts his decisions according to the given situations, but he is also flexible with his leadership style (Wright, 1996). The modern leadership styles are based on the leader’s assessment and conscious behavior that is good for the particular situation.