Behavioral Theories



In response the criticism received by trait theories, behavioral theories of leadership began to develop in the 1950s and 1960s (Weinbach, 2008). These theories seek to identify good leadership behavior by determining how strong leaders act differently from weak leaders. According to Weinbach (2008), through the use of training and education, others can be taught to behave in a way more consistent with good leadership (Weinbach, 2008). Some would say that Vince Lombardi (the famous NFL football coach for Green Bay Packers in the 1960s) put it best when he said “leaders are made, they are not born” (www.vincelombardi.com). Although coach Lombardi might have never been considered a behaviorist in the realm of social sciences, this famous quote basically sums up the core principles of this theory.

This leadership theory is primarily concerned with the actions of leaders, not mental traits or internal processing. Unlike traits, behaviors can be easily measured because they can be seen, recorded, and verified (Weinbach, 2008). In B.F. Skinner’s book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971), Skinner describes how behavioral approaches can be used to teach people how to act in a certain way or develop of conditioned response. This conditioned response is developed through learned behavior. This video should help illustrate Skinner’s concept of learned behavior and the conditioned response:


("Operant Conditioning" - Video Compliments of: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA)

If we were to take Skinner’s ideals and apply them to leadership, learned behavior could be achieved by first breaking down the skills and information to be learned into small units. This would then be followed by checking employer’s work regularly while providing feedback as encouragement (reinforcement) (Skinner, 1971). So, this theory basically clings to the notion that rewarding certain behaviors over others will encourage it’s persistence. Although this approach can be difficult to use when deciding which behaviors are reflective of good leadership, this theory does offer some interesting insight as to how we can improve leadership in an organizational setting (Weinbach, 2008).