Assumption-Based Leadership: A Historical Post-Hoc Conceptualization of the Assumptions Underlying Leadership Styles

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Executive Summary

This research utilizes a historical post-hoc approach to propose a typological framework that integrates the leadership styles examined by Lewin, Lippitt, and White (1939) with McGregor's (1960) Theory X and Theory Y which outline managerial assumptions of humankind's natural predisposition towards work. This study posits that leaders characterized by the assumptions of Theory X are task-focused whereas Theory Y leaders are people-focused, and these foci are posited to influence the leadership style managers adopt to guide subordinate behaviors. This conceptual model extends extant motivational leadership research by proposing an additional leadership style termed dynamic leadership, which is ideal for leaders operating in a dynamic environment. This typology (1) clarifies the underlying impetus behind observable leadership styles, (2) explains how assumptions of human nature guide managerial decision making, and (3) provides a framework by which future research can empirically examine how managerial assumptions influence leadership styles.


If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance. - Orville Wright

Douglas McGregor conceptualized Theory X and Theory Y over fifty years ago in his famous book entitled The Human Side of Enterprise. The conceptualization outlined in McGregor's book has since served as a benchmark for further theoretical development influenced by the human relations movement (Carson, 2005). Furthermore, it has attracted the attention of countless practicing managers who are motivated to analyze their managerial style and improve their effectiveness (Stewart, 2010). Theory X and Theory Y have provided valuable insight into how managerial behaviors are tied to managers' underlying beliefs regarding subordinates' natural predisposition towards work (Wren & Bedeian, 2009). These underlying beliefs, or tacit assumptions, are proposed to influence the manager's behavior toward the employees as well as the leadership style adopted by the manager.

While Theory X and Theory Y have been the subject of numerous research investigations, the theories have yet to be combined into a typological framework to identify the leadership style resulting from the extent to which a manager is task-focused or people-focused, thereby constituting a gap in motivational leadership research. Thus, the purpose of the current study is to fill this gap by integrating these theories into a conceptual framework with theoretical and practical utility. This conceptualization draws from research conducted by Kurt Lewin, one of the first scholars to investigate the human motivational process, to explicate the quadrants of the proposed 2x2 typology. Lewin, Lippitt, & White (1939) were the first researchers to analyze the leadership process with a dyadic approach, and their findings are very informative for the current conceptualization. Lewin et al. (1939) identified three styles of leadership which they termed authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire leadership. The current conceptualization extends Lewin et al.'s (1939) work by explicating a fourth leadership style, called dynamic leadership, which is most applicable to today's dynamic business environment.

This study utilizes a historical post-hoc approach to propose a theoretical conceptualization in the form of a typological framework by integrating McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y with Lewin's styles of leadership. DiMaggio (1995) promoted the use of historical, post-hoc approaches as a valuable form of theorizing in the advancement of management knowledge. Furthermore, this approach has recently been utilized to analyze various styles of leadership (e.g., Novicevic, Davis, Dom, Buckley, & Brown, 2005; Novicevic, Heames, Paolillo, and Buckley, 2009). The unique contributions of this research are that it (1) proposes a conceptual framework in the form of a typology to organize extant motivational leadership research on the foci of managerial control, and (2) adds a dimension to Lewin's conceptualization of leadership styles which enhances the applicability of this typological framework to the dynamic environment in which leaders now operate. …


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