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Cognitive Resource Theory

Technical Details

Name: Cognitive Resource Theory
Author: Fred Fiedler and Joe Garcia
Classification: Contingency Theories
Year: Formulated by Fred E. Fiedler and Joe Garcia from the former's Contingency Model (1967) in 1987.


  • Cognitive Resource Theory is a constant reminder of the hubris of intelligence. Stress is common in leadership situations, and this theory emphasizes how it limits even an intelligent person's ability to lead.
  • The theory helps predict whether a certain type of person will be able to lead in a stressful situation.
  • A specific model exists with the theory that allows testing in multiple environments and with making predictions.
  • The theory helps the placement of persons in leadership positions by suggesting that people be tested for intelligence and the ability to manage stress in addition to assessing leadership qualities.


  • Intelligence is not defined. There are many types and degrees of intelligence and the Cognitive Resource Theory doesn't account for them.
  • The nature of tasking itself is not addressed. There are many types of objectives a group may need to achieve and each may involve a different level of stress and hence, require a different leadership method.
  • Many types of stress exist; one cannot simply say "stress". For example, there is psychological and physical stress and each has its inhibiting effects that the theory does not account for.
  • Stress often is measured subjectively, this in the face of the many measurable effects in the cognitive, psychological and physical domains. Without a quantitative evaluation instrument, it is difficult to create research instruments to evaluate the theory.


The Cognitive Resource Theory main claim is that various sources of stress are blocking the use of rationality in leadership. The more cognitively acute and experienced a leader is, the more she or he is able to overcome the effects of stress. Command, though, is the factor that overcomes the effects of stress. As for experience is the main factor enabling leadership under stress. Intelligence is more effective in less stressful situations. However, the leader's ability to think is more effective when her or his style is more orderly, premeditated and authoritarian. If the leader is similar to the average of a group, effective leadership will come from consensus-oriented approaches. In terms of objectives, the less complicated the tasks a group needs to do, the less of a need there is for an intelligent and experienced leader.

Foundations of the theory

Fiedler's 1967 Contingency Model, from which the Cognitive Resources Theory arose, asserted that leadership style depends upon the situation in which there needs to be a leader. However, people who are task-oriented tend to view person's worth in terms of what is to be done. Those persons who emphasize the importance of human relations tend to view co-workers more favorably. These factors evidence why, for Fiedler, there is no ideal leader; every situation is different.

For many years Frederick Taylor's single model of leadership insisted that tasks can be managed if they were meticulously quantified in terms of efficiency. His time studies in the early part of the last century were precursors to contemporary methods of monitoring a worker's every move, such as counting how many keystrokes are made in a set period of time as a mark of efficiency.

Fiedler states that it is against common sense to say that intelligence is not always important in leadership. When stress is involved, something else is needed and this is the ability to command forcefully. Intelligence leads to too much deliberation and indecisiveness when action in the face of stress is required. Fred Fiedler states that a leader uses his or her intelligence to formulate decisions, communicate to the group and then seek the support of the group. At any one of these points, stress may block the process. If a leader has poor relationships with the group, stress is more effective in blocking leadership. Based on this, Fiedler predicts that intelligence will be more of a factor when the stress level is low.

In all of this, effective communication is a must, and therefore must have clarity of purpose, scope and expectations of a task. To task a group requires a leader to be what Fielder calls "directive".


There are a number of qualifications that apply to the Cognitive Resource Theory, as there are with most theories. The parameters Fiedler and Garcia use are not precise, such as the nature of intelligence. It has been found that there are multiple intelligences, such as those involving emotions, creativity and the ability to socialize. Another problem relates to stress. There is positive stress and negative stress and each has different effects on different persons. Those not well suited to newness will consider a positive stress, such as being in new environment even though it is supportive.

There are individuals who may be strong leaders in a familiar setting but are challenged by a different setting. Conversely, there are those who thrive in a state of challenge, deleterious or supporting. Furthermore, stress is not only is not typified but also is not quantified. We do not see stress scales and even if we did, there would be issues with how their quantization is achieved. Another problem with the Cognitive Resource Theory is broad brushing audiences. There are numerous types and even though the theory may address the issue of group support for a leader, as Fiedler does, the discussion of group-type goes wanting. For example, is the group itself composed of leaders? A professor attempting to get a group of professors to accomplish an odious task stands as an example of the problems involved in this regard. The Cognitive Resource Theory fails to mention task-types and the resources required to accomplish the task. True, simple jobs may require a minimum of leadership, but tasks are variegated and may require different leadership styles. Further, many tasks have phases, each with a different nature and each requiring a different leadership approach.

Future directions of the theory

Overall, however, the theory offers a needed qualification of the popular view that intelligence is paramount in leadership. Yet, the theory must bear further research, such as investigating whether intelligence is regarded as a perceived phenomenon or a quantified one by the ones being led. Other qualities might be considered as well, such as charisma. This would help assess how they greet the leader. Leaders can feign intelligence, not the least method of which is by dissembling. Leaders, especially unpopular ones, often dominate behind a facade and it is this facade that enables the person to be a leader.

Another adjunct to the theory would involve the role of group participation, ranging from a collective leadership to a democracy. Would a directive leader transfer that defectiveness to participation and ultimately draw the whole group into a forceful self-direction? That is, more attention would be paid to the dynamical aspect of the theory, i.e., its evolution, rather than as a static description of relationships. There may be extensions to the theory in terms of compensation for stress. Would a leader's networking ability, for example be useful in overcoming the exigencies produces by stress? What about calling on others in a group to assist with more challenging tasks? The theory is new and surely open for modification, as many major theories have been in the past.

Want to expand on the discussion?

We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.

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