There’s no such thing as an objectively “correct” approach to becoming a great leader. As a business owner, you’re in a position that demands leadership. Hence, understanding the behavioural theory of leadership can be a game-changer.

We’ll dive deep into the behavioural theory of leadership, exploring its historical background, key principles, and its significance in a business context. 

Table of Contents

We’ll also look at major contributors to the theory, compare it with other leadership theories, and discuss its strengths and weaknesses.

Plus, we’ll provide practical tips, case studies and examples to help you apply these insights to your leadership journey.

Through our guide, you’ll understand what it takes to become a great leader and recognise areas of improvement to grow even further.


2. What is the Behavioural Theory of Leadership?


2.1 The Definition of Behavioural Leadership Theory

The behavioural theory of leadership is defined as a theory that focuses on the specific actions and behaviours of leaders rather than their traits or characteristics.

It suggests that effective leadership is the result of learned behaviours and practices that can be observed, taught, and replicated. 

This theory underscores the idea that leadership skills can be developed through experience and education, making it accessible to anyone willing to learn and apply these behaviours.

2.2 Historical Background of Behavioural Leadership Theory

The behavioural theory of leadership emerged in the mid-20th century as researchers sought to understand what effective leaders do rather than who they are. 

This shift in focus moved away from the idea that leadership is an innate quality and instead posited that it can be learned through observation and practice. 

The theory gained traction through seminal studies at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, which identified specific behaviours that distinguished effective leaders from ineffective ones.

2.3 Key Principles and Concepts

At its core, the behavioural theory of leadership is built on the premise that successful leadership is based on definable, learnable behaviours. Key concepts include:

  • Task-Oriented Behaviours: Leaders who focus on setting goals, defining roles, and establishing clear processes.
  • People-Oriented Behaviours: Leaders who prioritise building relationships, supporting team members, and fostering a positive work environment.

These behaviours are not mutually exclusive; effective leaders often balance both to adapt to varying situations and team needs.

2.4 Importance in a Business Context

In a business context, the behavioural theory of leadership is crucial as it offers a practical framework for developing leadership skills. 

By identifying and replicating the behaviours of successful leaders, organisations can cultivate effective leadership at all levels. 

This approach is particularly valuable for training and development programs, as it provides clear, actionable guidelines for aspiring leaders.


3. Founders and Contributors of the Behavioural Theory of Leadership


An art deco-style poster of 3 psychologists that founded the behavioural theory of leadership with a brain icon overhead.


3.1 Major Figures in the Development of Behavioural Leadership Theory

The behavioural theory of leadership was significantly shaped by the contributions of several key figures. 

Their pioneering research laid the groundwork for understanding leadership behaviours and their impact on organisational effectiveness.

  1. Kurt Lewin: Often regarded as one of the founding figures of behavioural leadership, Lewin’s work on leadership styles—authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire—provided early insights into how different behaviours influence group dynamics and performance.
  2. Ralph M. Stogdill: Stogdill’s studies at Ohio State University identified two critical dimensions of leadership behaviour: initiating structure (task-oriented) and consideration (people-oriented). His research demonstrated that both dimensions are essential for effective leadership.
  3. Rensis Likert: At the University of Michigan, Likert’s research focused on the impact of leadership behaviours on employee performance and satisfaction. He developed the Likert scale and identified two main leadership styles: job-centred and employee-centred.

3.2 Contributions and Key Ideas from Each Founder


Founder Key Ideas
1. Kurt Lewin Lewin’s experiments in the 1930s and 1940s established the foundational idea that leadership is not just about personal traits but also about the behaviours exhibited by leaders.


His identification of different leadership styles highlighted the importance of flexibility in leadership approaches.

2. Ralph M. Stogdill Stogdill’s work in the 1950s provided empirical evidence that effective leaders exhibit both task-oriented and people-oriented behaviours.

His research showed that balancing these behaviours leads to higher group productivity and morale.

3. Rensis Likert Likert’s contributions in the 1960s emphasized the role of supportive leadership in fostering high employee morale and performance. 

His studies underscored the significance of employee-centred leadership behaviours in achieving organisational success.

These pioneers collectively advanced our understanding of how specific behaviours influence leadership effectiveness, paving the way for the development of practical leadership training programs based on behavioural principles.


4. Comparisons with Other Leadership Theories


The behavioural theory of leadership stands distinctively among other prominent leadership theories, each offering unique perspectives on what makes a good leader.

4.1 Behavioural Leadership vs Trait Theory vs Situational Leadership

Aspect Behavioural Leadership Theory Trait Theory Situational Leadership
Focus Emphasises learned behaviours and actions that contribute to effective leadership. Highlights inherent traits and qualities as determinants of effective leadership. Advocates adaptive leadership styles based on situational demands.
Development of Leaders Believes leadership skills can be developed through training and experience. Assumes leadership qualities are innate and cannot be taught. Encourages leaders to adjust their style to fit varying situations.
Approach to Leadership Advocates for consistent, task-oriented and people-oriented behaviours. Focuses on innate characteristics such as intelligence and charisma. Suggests adapting leadership style based on the specific circumstances.
Accessibility Provides pathways for individuals to acquire and improve leadership skills. Limits leadership to those born with specific traits or qualities. Requires leaders to be flexible and adaptable in their approach.
Application in Practice Promotes development through coaching, training, and experiential learning. Identifies potential leaders based on inherent traits and qualities. Encourages leaders to assess and adjust their behaviour based on situational needs.


5. Strengths and Weaknesses of Behavioral Leadership Theory

Behavioural leadership theory offers several strengths and weaknesses that impact its application in various organisational settings. Understanding these aspects is crucial for evaluating its effectiveness.


Strengths Weaknesses
Focuses on observable behaviours, making it practical and measurable. Critics argue it oversimplifies leadership complexities.
Emphasises skills development, enhancing leadership capabilities. May not fully account for situational factors influencing leadership.
Promotes flexibility by suggesting behaviours can be learned and adapted. Relies heavily on subjective assessments of leadership behaviours.
Encourages leader adaptability and responsiveness to changing environments. Difficult to prescribe universal behavioural traits for effective leadership.
Supported by empirical research demonstrating its impact on leader effectiveness. Requires consistent effort to integrate into organisational culture.


These strengths and weaknesses highlight the nuanced nature of behavioural leadership theory.

They offer insights into both its potential and limitations in modern leadership practices.


6. Key Characteristics of Behavioral Leaders

Behavioural leaders exhibit specific traits and behaviours that distinguish them in their roles. These characteristics go beyond innate qualities and focus on actionable behaviours that contribute to effective leadership.


6.1 Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Behavioural leaders are empathetic and possess high emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage both your own emotions and the emotions of others. 

It involves being aware of how emotions influence thoughts and behaviours and using that awareness to navigate social interactions effectively.

They understand and respond to the emotions of their team members, fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment.

6.2 Focus on Employee Motivation and Development

They prioritise the motivation and development of their team members. 

Behavioural leaders inspire others by setting clear goals, providing constructive feedback, and creating opportunities for growth.

6.3 Communication and Delegation Skills

Effective communication is a hallmark of behavioural leaders. 

They excel in conveying their vision, listening actively to others, and ensuring clarity in instructions. 

Additionally, they delegate tasks wisely, leveraging the strengths of their team members.


7. Applications of Behavioral Theory of Leadership in Business


A man walking on a crosswalk in a bare white room with floating rubik's cube to symbolize application of behavioral theory of leadership.


The principles of behavioural leadership theory find practical application across various aspects of business management, enhancing organisational effectiveness and fostering a positive workplace culture.


7.1 Implementing Behavioral Leadership in Organisational Culture

Integrating behavioural leadership principles into organisational culture involves aligning values, norms, and practices with an emphasis on employee development and engagement. 

Leaders model desired behaviours and encourage team members to embody these values.

7.2 Resolving Conflicts and Managing Diverse Teams

Behavioural leaders excel in conflict resolution by promoting open communication and empathy. 

They understand the diverse perspectives within their teams and leverage these differences to foster collaboration and innovation.

7.3 Improving Employee Engagement and Performance

By focusing on employee motivation and development, behavioural leaders enhance engagement and performance. 

They create a supportive environment where team members feel valued, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

Sure, here’s the section on ‘8. Case Studies on Successful Implementation’:


8. Case Studies on Successful Implementation

Examining real-world examples provides valuable insights into how companies effectively apply behavioural leadership theory to achieve business success and enhance organisational dynamics.


8.1 Examples of Companies Using Behavioral Leadership Effectively

Company A: This technology firm implemented behavioural leadership practices by focusing on employee motivation through regular feedback and recognition.

By fostering a culture of trust and open communication, they saw a significant increase in team collaboration and innovation.

Company B: In the retail sector, Company B integrated behavioural leadership principles to manage diverse customer service teams. 

Leaders prioritised empathy and emotional intelligence, resulting in improved customer satisfaction scores and employee retention rates.

8.2 Impact on Employee Satisfaction and Company Performance

In both cases, the adoption of behavioural leadership contributed to higher employee satisfaction levels and enhanced company performance metrics. 

By prioritising the development of leadership skills and fostering a supportive work environment, these companies achieved sustainable growth and competitive advantage.


9. Challenges and Criticisms of Behavioral Theory of Leadership

While the behavioural theory of leadership offers valuable insights and practical applications, it also faces several challenges and criticisms in certain business contexts.


9.1 Limitations in Certain Business Environments

In highly structured or hierarchical organisations, implementing behavioural leadership approaches may encounter resistance. 

Traditional management styles rooted in command and control may hinder the adoption of more participative and employee-centric leadership practices.

9.2 Criticisms from Alternative Leadership Perspectives

From the perspective of trait theory proponents, behavioural leadership may be criticised for overlooking inherent personality traits that are believed to predispose individuals to effective leadership. 

Critics argue that focusing solely on observable behaviours may neglect the innate qualities that contribute to leadership effectiveness.

9.3 Strategies to Overcome Potential Challenges

To mitigate these challenges, organisations can adopt a phased approach to introducing behavioural leadership principles. 

This includes providing comprehensive training for leaders to develop necessary skills, aligning leadership practices with organisational goals, and fostering a culture of openness to change and continuous improvement.

Certainly! Here’s the section on ’10. Tips for Business Owners to Adopt Behavioral Leadership’:


10. Tips for Business Owners to Adopt Behavioral Leadership

Implementing behavioural leadership practices can transform organisational dynamics and improve employee engagement. 

Here are actionable tips for business owners looking to adopt and leverage behavioural leadership effectively:


10.1 Training Programs for Developing Behavioral Leadership Skills

Invest in leadership development programs that focus on fostering key behavioural traits such as empathy, communication, and motivational skills. 

Provide opportunities for leaders at all levels to enhance their emotional intelligence and build strong relationships with their teams.

10.2 Creating a Supportive and Inclusive Work Environment

Foster a workplace culture that values openness, collaboration, and mutual respect

. Encourage constructive feedback and create opportunities for employees to voice their opinions and ideas. 

Emphasise inclusivity and diversity to promote a sense of belonging among team members.

10.3 Monitoring Progress and Adjusting Strategies Accordingly

Regularly assess the impact of behavioural leadership initiatives on organisational performance and employee satisfaction. 

Use feedback mechanisms, surveys, and performance metrics to gauge effectiveness. Adjust strategies as needed to address challenges and capitalise on successes.

By prioritising these tips, business owners can cultivate a leadership culture that empowers teams, fosters innovation, and drives sustainable business growth.


11. Conclusion

In conclusion, the behavioural theory of leadership offers a nuanced approach to understanding and practising effective leadership in modern businesses.

 By focusing on observable behaviours, emotional intelligence, and motivational techniques, leaders can create environments where teams thrive and performance excels.

From its roots in psychology to its practical applications in business settings, the theory continues to evolve and shape leadership practices worldwide.

As businesses navigate dynamic landscapes and diverse teams, adopting behavioural leadership leads to tangible benefits like:

  • Improved employee engagement
  • Enhanced decision-making
  • Stronger organisational culture

While it’s not without its criticisms and challenges, proactive strategies and continuous development can mitigate these obstacles.

At Authority Institute, we specialise in empowering businesses with tailored leadership training and development solutions rooted in behavioural theory. Contact us today to explore how we can customise strategies to elevate your leadership capabilities and drive organisational success.