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Behavioural Leadership Theory: Shaping Leadership Through Actions


Introduction and History

Originating from the mid-20th century, behavioural leadership theory marked a significant shift in the field of leadership research. This theory evolved as a counter-response to the Great Man and Trait theories, which focused on innate leadership attributes. Instead, the behavioural approach suggested that effective leadership is less about inborn characteristics and more about specific behaviours and actions.


Behavioural leadership theory posits that great leaders are made, not born. It suggests that anyone can become a leader by learning and practising a set of behaviours associated with effective leadership. This theory thus shifted the focus from who leaders are (their traits and characteristics) to what leaders actually do (their actions and behaviour).

Practical Examples and Case Studies

Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, is an example of behavioural leadership theory in practice. He championed a culture of fun, recognition, and care within his organisation, focusing on specific behaviours such as celebrating employee milestones, recognising exceptional work, and fostering a supportive environment.

Academic Insights

Two significant models arose from the behavioural theory: The University of Michigan’s Employee-Oriented Leader model and Ohio State University’s Two-Dimension model (initiating structure and consideration). Both models identified different dimensions of leadership behaviour, such as task orientation and relationship orientation.

Critical Analysis

While behavioural leadership theory has been praised for its focus on developable actions, critics argue that it overlooks the impact of situational factors. Moreover, it may oversimplify the complexity of leadership by suggesting a universal set of effective behaviours. The theory also struggles with the question of which behaviours are most effective in which contexts.

Future Outlook

The relevance of behavioural leadership theory continues into the 21st century, with ongoing research focused on identifying and developing effective leadership behaviours. However, the theory is often integrated with other theories such as transformational, transactional, or situational leadership to form a more comprehensive understanding of effective leadership. It’s useful when thinking about one’s leadership style because it is a foundation stone to build on with how leaders adopt behaviours often drawn from their values, which become habits. 


Behavioural leadership theory, with its emphasis on learnable actions and behaviours, democratises the field of leadership. Despite its limitations, this theory provides valuable insights into how leaders can shape their actions to effectively lead teams and organisations.

Further Reading and Resources

Book: “The Human Side of Enterprise” by Douglas McGregor

Article: “From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the Vision” by Bernard M. Bass (Organisational Dynamics)

Video: TED Talk: “Everyday Leadership” by Drew Dudley

Podcast: The Knowledge Project – “Navigating Leadership” with Michael Useem

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