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Contingency Theories

Technical Details

Name(s): Various Theories are proposed
Author: Various
Classification: Theories based on Contingencies
Year: 1960s


  • Theories based on contingencies take account of unique circumstances, albeit in a general way.
  • The theory is a common-sense view of the world to those realizing that context and system dynamics are integral aspects of a leader-led situation.
  • Contingency theories motivate thinking about a particular aspect of a leader-led situation that need more intense focus.


  • A contingency theory may be expressed in too general a way to have specific applicative value.
  • Identifying the aspects of a situation can be highly subjective and may not capture the reality of a leader-led situation
  • Any verification and validation of a modeled system is inherently difficult.


Contingency theories are that there is no one leadership style and that the nature of those being led, the make-up of the leader and the tasks facing a group are different. Each situation is unique and the ideal leader-led situation will be unique, as well. Some of the major contingency theories are:

Other categories of contingency theories emphasize:

  • Behavioralism
  • Tasks
  • Organizational (system) integrity
  • System environments

To provide meaning to the theory, it is necessary to focus on at least one aspect of the leader-led situation, although such a focus only highlights an issue rather than giving a complete description of the situation.


Nothing stands in isolation and this can be demonstrated simply by looking at a colored sheet of paper and attempting to discern an image. Unless someone places a mark on the paper, there will be none. The same applies to standing in a room in which all the objects are colored in the same hue. Such observation appears obvious, but people will often attempt to identify something standing alone. In leadership theory, this surely is true as people write about "the" method or type of leadership. It is as if a person, in spite of the circumstances will act in a specific manner. Common sense dictates that a leader, in order to continue being one, will have to adjust to what happens in the environment, that is, contingencies. "Contingency" means "depending upon". Those proposing contingency theories realize that a leader must adjust. The hallmark of these theories is context and in a more profound sense, everything is interdependent. One can add "dynamic", as well. but cannot consider only a particular system, but a system among systems. A classic case is the leader of an organization having to deal with a hierarchy of organizations or with leaders of other organizations. The president of a country may be the leader of that country, but s/he often has to look to other leaders of states or cabinet heads to lead. There are, of course, relations among organizations and what happens with them may very well have an influence on a person's ability to lead. One may point to the USSR, where its client states were disappearing as their leadership fell. Ultimately, the leaders of the USSR's Communist Party could not lead, as the whole system turned out to be rotten. On a more local scale as with a city mayor or manager, if the departments are not running well, then people may question the mayor's competence. A city manager may be tossed out by the city council. So, it is the case that contingency theories can encompass anything that could be deemed "the environment", including the leaders themselves and their actions.

The 1960s period was fraught with a tumult in political science, a part of which were leadership theories and philosophies. People were searching for specific ways of identifying phenomena and predicting future events on what had bween observed. The discipline was floundering as it sought to emulate the more precise sciences of math, physics,and biology. It had to be taken another rung down on the precision ladder by looking at psychology and behaviorism, a paradigm case of B.F. Skinner. Too, it was a period where systems analysis was on the rise, a school of thinking looking to cybernetics or to John von Neumann and Norbert Weiner in the 1930s and 1940s. How could systems theory [1] be integrated with behavioralism to form the basis of a real science of politics? First came the systems theory of W. Ross Ashby in his Design for a Brain, where systems were homeostatic or self-regulating mechanisms. It was realized, however, that a system cannot merely be stable; it has to adapt, and it was this ideology that propelled the thinking about contingencies. Organizations from the smallest of clubs to nation states were deemed systems and subject to the general systems' constraints. The thinking about whether machines could think was going in the opposite direction of whether societies were machines.

It was Gabriel A. Almond's seminal work American People and Foreign Policy [2] that helped lead the attention of political scientists into the mindset that the thinking of people could be predicted. In the same survey given to the same sample of people, the responses were very often different, if not contradictory. If a group of people could change ideas about the same subject - one so major and well discussed in the media - so radically, what would be the implications of how a person should lead? We are beginning to learn that the ability to field different situations effectively strengthens a society's participation.. To the recent past, we have not been able to quantify how well, but the world of simulations, where participants can be programmed with software that gives them autonomy, is providing substantial breakthroughs. Indications are that when a person is allowed to adapt, s/he will sustain a situation for a longer period of time .[3]


To say that a situation is contextual and dynamic appears to be apparent. A major question would be how one can apply the theory to resolve a problem. It is comparable to say that loop-back testing, where one checks each sub-assembly of a system, is the most efficacious means of demonstrating whether or not a system works. One must specify the type of environment and the nature of the components to be tested to apply the theory intelligently. The collection of variables is innumerable and quantification is almost impossible in such general a theory.

To compensate for the vagueness, theorists have narrowed the scope of "contingency theories" to precise cases, such as a "strategic contingency theory", where the leader's problem-solving abilities, the means of confronting a variety of tasks will define success. Yet the granularity of specification may not be sufficient. For example, there are many types of problems and the ability to solve them may exceed any person's capacity.

Future of theory

There has been a great departure from the narrow theories of leadership, such as "The Great Man Theory" (circa latter 1800s), and we are on the verge of being able to predict how a leader-led situation will progress. We have taken the necessary key steps in realizing the importance of context and dynamism. The drive to prediction has not abated and although we are seeing more work being completed at the system level, additional effort will surely follow in the particular leader-led situation. Starting with the Simsoc (Simulated Society) social simulation program in the 1970s, we now have popular web-based programs available, such as "Second Life" [4], where a person can assume the role of nearly anyone and play a part in a simulated society.

In the military world, widespread studies of leader-led situations (commander-troops) are reflected in modeling and simulation (M & S) programs. The ability to predict how a battlefield situation impinges upon a commander's ability to lead will no doubt have major implications on how military campaigns are enacted. Even the M & S of the ethics of a leader are taking place and it may be possible to select those that conform to an ethical bias [5].

While M & S is advancing with great strides, there is the ever-present issue of ensuring whether a model of a leader-led situation is accurate; the question remains as to whether all of the variables been accounted for. Even if criical ones have been identified, how can one be confident that the list is sufficient? Any omitted factor can cause prediction to be impossible. Enter the problems associated with verification and validation and what progress made in this may be comparable to that which may result from confronting the simplistic theorists of the early part of the last century. How is one able to validate a model and simulation of a leadership environment?

In the 1950s, when electroshock treatment was applied to mentally ill persons, there was an emergence of pharmaceuticals that claimed to be able to manage these patients. Rapid advances in brain scanning technologies such as the electroencephalograph (EEG) and the computerized axial tomography (CAT) have been realized. We are now aware that the various areas of the brain are responsible for specific human actions. Cognitive neuroscience is now becoming the foundation for validating human behavior [6].

Being able to assess how a leader-led situation will turn out and be prescriptive, thus preventing disasters. However, without sound validation techniques, another danger lurks. There is an increasing reliance upon artificial devices that are used for decision-making and as a result, there is a possible future danger of looking to them to make critical decisions about systems and those persons taking on roles in them. If we start relying on software to assess whether or not a person is to become a leader, such as in the utilization of the EBASS program and other psychological assessment software (i.e. personality tests), how can we be confident than the evaluation system will not assume a life of its own? How leaders are selected is still within the province of humans and in that respect, nothing has changed for 2,500 years since the time when Plato and Aristotle set forth their adage that a participatory society can last only when the electorate is educated, regardless of the contingencies involved.

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