Document created: 21 April 03
Air University Review, March-April 1976

Managerial Styles

Lieutenant Colonel Merrell E. Dean

A managerís style of managing has been a continuing cause of concern to his organization, his subordinates, and, at times, the manager himself. All have recognized that the manager's style is one of the major contributors to the performance and effectiveness of his unit. The desire to define how a manager should conduct himself while working with others has led to investigations into those variables that may affect levels of managerial performance. This article examines, in summary form, investigations by various management authorities on the subject of managerial styles. These investigations have been developed into three theories of managerial style: trait, behavior, and situation.

Throughout this article, the emphasis will be on the manager's style of leadership. Since there is no single, universally accepted definition of managerial style, the common practice has been to consider the manager's leadership style as his style of managing. Most of the authorities cited in this article use the terms "managerial style" and "leadership style" interchangeably. However, it must be remembered that leadership is only one mechanism that managers may use to motivate others toward organizational goals.

trait theory

From research studies conducted during the 1940s and 1950s, the trait theory of styles focuses on "what the leader is." Leadership is thought of as a function of a finite number of characteristics that differentiate the successful from the unsuccessful leader. Edwin Ghiselli cited the traits of initiative, self-assurance, individuality, supervisory ability, and intelligence.1 He qualified the trait of intelligence by suggesting that the level of an individual's intelligence was an accurate indication of the probability that he would achieve success as a manager--until a certain intellectual level is reached. Above this level, individuals with higher and higher scores were less and less likely to be successful managers. Other researchers brought in even more traits--personality, height, image, charisma, etc.--until at one time ninety traits had been identified.

However, Ralph Stogdill found little or no positive relationship between a manager's traits and his success.2 Eugene Jennings concluded that fifty years of study had produced nothing to distinguish leaders from nonleaders.3

Overall, the trait theory has made a contribution to the study of effective managerial styles, but not as much as was once thought. Seemingly, traits do not consistently distinguish the best leaders, the list of traits keeps growing, many traits are difficult to measure, and the trait theory ignores other important variables in the leadership situation.

behavioral theory

Dissatisfaction with the trait theory led to a new theory that focused on the behavior of a leader. The behavioral theory of managerial styles was prominent during the 1950s and 1960s. This theory focused on "what the leader does" by attempting to observe and describe the leader's style of behavior. This theory comprises several approaches: a continuum of styles, independent styles, and two-dimensional models of styles.

Continuum of Styles. Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt developed a continuum of leadership behavior to describe a range of behavioral patterns available to a manager.4 They related the leader's actions to the degree of authority used by him and the amount of freedom available to his subordinates. The leader's actions described on the left characterize the manager who maintains a high degree of control, while those on the right describe a manager who delegates authority. Tannenbaum and Schmidt felt that a leader should not choose one style and adhere to it strictly but should be flexible and adapt his style to the situation. (See diagram, page 43.)

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum of Leadership Behavior

Independent Styles. Although flexibility in styles had been stressed, a number of independent leadership styles were analyzed, including the autocratic, the benevolent-autocratic, and the supportive.

Autocratic behavior is usually identified with a leader who commands and has many sanctions at his disposal. He is considered almost totally job-oriented, with little or no concern for the people in his organization. This leader is the one who has all the answers, and people serve only to carry out his instructions. Many times he has been thought of as being dogmatic and arbitrary in his actions. However, M. E. Shaw discovered that, in problem-solving situations, autocratically supervised persons used less time and made fewer errors than did democratically supervised subjects.5

Advanced as a style of behavior by Robert McMurry, the benevolent-autocratic leader is described as powerful and prestigious but one who can be communicated with and is interested in his subordinates' problems.6 He structures the activities of his subordinates, makes policy decisions affecting them, and enforces discipline. He may encourage participation in planning, but in executing he is the "chief." However, James Gibson, John Ivancevich, and James Donnelly, Jr., say even this style has been weakened by recent changes in attitudes within our society.7 This may particularly be true for younger generations as they express desires to shift away from any authoritative or paternalistic environment.

The supportive leader is one who is considered as being somewhat democratic and participative in style. He is one who supervises his employees generally, not closely. This type of leader specifies objectives and communicates them but then allows subordinates considerable freedom in accomplishing the tasks. Rensis Likert concluded that employee--centered supervisors tend to have higher producing groups than job-centered supervisors.8 Stogdill, Coons, Argyle, Blau, Scott, Jennings, and Gibb each had similar findings from their research. However, others do not agree. Spector and Suttle found no significant difference in output between an autocratic and a democratic leadership style.9 M. Patchen said that close supervision does not necessarily reduce a subordinate's freedom; the subordinate may perceive close supervision as interest in his welfare.10

Varying ideas within and between these three independent approaches to leader behavior were never reconciled. However, independent approaches such as these did help to provide the groundwork for the development of subsequent two-dimensional behavioral models.

Two-Dimensional Styles. By developing models to display dual dimensions of a leader's style, researchers were able to consolidate many of the independent thrusts of studies. From group dynamics, Bales founded the Great Man approach: the individual who is both the best idea man and the best-liked member is the best leader.11 Roger M. Stogdill, Alvin E. Coons, and others at Ohio State University developed a leadership model based on the dimensions of "consideration" and "initiating structure." A leader with a high degree of "consideration" was one who developed a work atmosphere of mutual trust, respect for subordinates' ideas, and consideration of their feelings. A leader with a high degree of "initiating structure" was one who established unit goals, structured his role and those of his subordinates, planned and scheduled work activities, and communicated pertinent information. The most effective manager, it was concluded, was one whose behavior was high in both "consideration" and "initiating structure," with the next-best manager being the one who was high in "consideration" and low in "initiating structure."12

Another approach to a two-dimensional theory, the managerial grid, was developed by Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton. Their model was based on the manager's assumptions regarding his "concern for people," the satisfying of their needs, and his "concern for production," the reaching of production objectives. To Blake and Mouton, the best manager would be one who couples the two concerns to provide the highest level of contribution and accomplishment.13 Their model and its accompanying surveys have possibly been the most widely used instruments to identify managerial styles. However, there is an important caveat associated with this model: it may identify a manager's assumptions and concerns without identifying his actual leadership behavior. The model has had its most informative value when surveys are completed not only by the manager himself but also by his subordinates and superiors concerning him. Blake and Mouton subsequently expanded this model into a three-dimensional grid.

Overall, the behavioral theory has made a valuable contribution to the study of managerial styles. It has provided a classification of a number of styles. Much of the research generally supports the idea that styles can be characterized by a combination of two leadership behaviors, one oriented toward the task (initiating structure, concern for production) and one oriented toward interpersonal relations (consideration, concern for people). However, many conflicting opinions within this theory still remain. To some, the interpersonal-oriented leader is considered more effective; to others, the task-oriented leader; and to still others the leader who is high in both dimensions is the best. Thus there developed a need for research to integrate the various ideas and incorporate the impact of varying situations on leadership styles and their effectiveness.

situational theory

Deficiencies in past theories have provided the stimulus for the most recent of the theories, the situational view of leadership. Leadership is explained in the interaction between the leader and variables in his work situation--his personality, his followers, the task, and the organizational environment. Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard see the manager's leadership process as a function of the leader, the followers, and the situation.14 D. Katz and R. L. Kahn feel that leadership acts are all different for different organizations, managerial levels, and situations.15 At high management levels, interpersonal skills are more important, while at lower levels, task approaches are more necessary.

Fred Fiedler's Contingency Theory of Leadership Effectiveness is the principal situational theory. With more than fourteen years of research as a basis, Fiedler concluded that, to be effective, a leader must match his style, whether task- or relationship-oriented, with the demands of the situation. The leader must assess the situation for its degree of favorableness (or unfavorableness) to his style of influence. This favorableness (or unfavorableness) would depend on (1) the level of the leader-member relations, (2) the amount of power inherent in the leader's position, and (3) the degree of structure in the task.16 If there were high degrees of value in each of these three variables, the situation would be highly favorable to a leader's influence; if one or two variables are high in degree and the remaining variable(s) low, the situation would be moderately favorable; if low values in the variables, the situation would be highly unfavorable to influence. If, for example, the leader-member relations are good, the leader has the power to fire, promote, or demote, and the task is spelled out step by step, the situation would be highly favorable to the leader and his influence. On the other hand, if the leader-member relations are poor, the leader has little inherent power in the position, and the task is nebulous and undefined, the situation would be highly unfavorable to the leader's influence. To Fiedler, it is easier to be the well-esteemed foreman of a construction crew working from a blueprint than it is to be the disliked chairman of a volunteer committee preparing a new policy.17

Fiedler concludes that a task-oriented style is more effective in situations in which the leader has very much or very little influence, and a relationship-oriented leader is more effective in situations only moderately favorable to his influence. In Fiedler's words, "Ö the appropriateness of the leadership style for maximizing group performance is contingent upon the favorableness of the group-task situations."18 Although he feels the leader should diagnose the variables in his situation, Fiedler suggests that it may be easier and more effective for the organization to engineer the job to fit the manager than to change a manager's leadership style to fit the job.19 In other words, the organization should match up a particular manager and his style to the demands of the situation or alter the variables within the situation, i.e., the power that goes with the leadership position, so that the situation becomes more conducive to the manager's style of influence.

Overall, the situational approach to leadership styles has been a valuable contribution. More realistic than previous theories, it shows that there is no "one best" style for all situations. Launching from the early efforts in this theory, greater research efforts are presently being conducted. Fiedler and others suggest that further research is needed to encompass more variables that maybe within the managerial situation.

Attempting to define and determine a proper managerial style is an extremely complex task for any manager. This article has shown that such a task may be just as perplexing for authorities in the field of management. Summarizing some of their ideas, this author has presented the trait, behavioral, and situational theories of leadership styles. Although some leadership traits may still be valid, the trait theory seems to have less importance than in the past. The behavioral theory has formed the basis for many managerial practices of today, but it still has some problems in providing an integrated style of leadership. The situational theory shows promise of integrating a theory of styles, but further clarification is needed. Overall, the evidence is becoming clearer that there is no single, all-purpose style of behavior that is effective in all managerial situations. Someday, experience and research may provide us with "the one best way." Until then, each manager must remain openminded, informed, and adaptable.

Air Command and Staff College


1. Edwin E. Ghiselli, "Management Talent," American Psychologist, Vol. 18 (October 1963), pp. 631-41.

2. Ralph M. Stogdill, "Personal Factors Associated with Leadership: A Survey of the Literature," Journal of Psychology, Vol. 25 (January 1948), pp. 35-71.

3. Eugene E. Jennings, :The Anatomy of Leadership," Management of Personnel Quarterly, I, No. 1 (Autumn 1961), pp. 2-9.

4. Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt, "How to Choose a Leadership Pattern," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 36 (March-April 1958), pp. 95-101.

5. M.E. Shaw, "A Comparison of Two Types of Leadership in Various Communication Nets," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 50 (1955), pp. l27-34.

6. Robert N. McMurry, "The Case for Benevolent Autocracy," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 36 (January-February 1958), pp. 82-90.

7. James L. Gibson, John M. Ivancevich, and James H. Donnelly, Jr., Organizations: Structure, Processes, Behavior (Dallas: Business Publications, Inc., 1973), p. 298.

8. Rensis Likert, New Patterns in Management (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961), pp. 7-9.

9. Allan C. Filley and Robert J. House, Managerial Process and Organizational Behavior (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, and Co., 1967), p. 403.

10. M. Patchen, "Supervisory Methods and Group Performance Norms," Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 7 (1962), pp. 275-94.

11. William G. Scott and Terence Mitchell, Organization Theory: A Structural and Behavioral Analysis (Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1972), p. 228.

12. Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organization Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), p. 74.

13. Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton, The Managerial Grid (Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing, 1964), p. 143.

14. Hersey and Blanchard, p. 68.

15. Daniel Katz and Robert L. Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organizations (New York: JohnWiley and Sons, 1966), pp. 300-335.

16. Fred E. Fiedler, "Engineer the Job to Fit the Manager," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 43 (September-October 1965), pp. 115-22.

17. Ibid.

18. Fred E. Fiedler, A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 147.

19. Fiedler, "Engineer the Job to Fit the Manager," p. 115.


Lieutenant Colonel Merrell E. Dean (M.S., George Washington University) is manager of the fundamentals and techniques of management phase of instruction at Air Command and Staff College. A Master Navigator, he has filled various flying positions in Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command. He has also served as a member of the faculty at Squadron Officer School. Colonel Dean is a graduate of Academic Instructor and Allied Officer School, Squadron Officer School, and Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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