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The Four factor theory of leadership

Leadership is getting players to believe in you. If you tell a teammate you're ready to play as tough as you're able to, you'd better go out there and do it. Players will see right through a phony. And they can tell when you're not giving it all you've got. – Larry Bird, Basketball player.

If someone asked you to say what the basics of good leadership are, what would you tell them?

Perhaps you'd use phrases like "having integrity," "inspiring people," "leading from the front," and a whole range of other phrases besides.

Good leadership involves many different attributes, but there are common factors that link many of them.

In this article we'll look at the Four Factor Theory of Leadership, a classic model that defines four basic dimensions of effective leadership. We'll then think about how you can use these dimensions with your team.

About the Theory

Researchers David Bowers and Stanley Seashore developed the Four Factor Theory of Leadership in the mid-1960s, and published it in 1966.

The pair reviewed the findings of several other leading researchers, who were exploring what it takes to be an effective leader. They noticed that there were four dimensions that consistently emerged in these studies.

The four factors were:

  1. Providing Personal Support – Helping people value themselves and their work, so that they can develop a sense of self-worth.

  2. Encouraging Teamwork ("Interaction Facilitation") – Encouraging people to establish close, collaborative, successful working relationships with one another.

  3. Focusing on Goals ("Goal Emphasis") – Inspiring people to feel enthusiastic about and committed to shared goals, and motivating them to want to perform well.

  4. Helping People Work Effectively ("Work Facilitation") – Helping people meet goals by supporting them, and by providing resources, materials, or knowledge.

Bowers and Seashore concluded that leaders need to do all of these things to lead their teams effectively.

Terms reproduced from "Predicting Organizational Effectiveness With a Four-Factor Theory of Leadership" by David G. Bowers and Stanley E. Seashore, Administrative Science Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 2 (Sep., 1966), pp. 238-263 with permission from Sage Publishing.

Applying the Theory

Although the more recent idea of Transformational Leadership is often the best leadership approach to use in business leadership situations, it can be helpful to keep Bowers and Seashore's factors in mind as you work with your team. After all, it helps to know about a variety of different leadership styles, so that you can use the best approach for a given situation.

So, how can you apply the four dimensions?

Providing Personal Support

With this dimension, leaders support members of their team on an emotional level by developing people's feelings of self-worth, and by helping them feel appreciated and valued.

As a leader, this means showing your people that you value the work they do. Reward your team by saying "thank you" when people have done a job well, or have gone beyond the call of duty. (If you're working on a slim budget, don't think you have to reward your team's efforts with cash; there are plenty of ways to motivate your team without bonuses.)

You can also support your people emotionally by building their self-confidence, and by showing empathy.

Remember, most people on your team just want to know that their work has value. Take time to recognize the work they do, and show your appreciation.

Encouraging Teamwork ("Interaction Facilitation")

Leaders work on this dimension when they encourage members of their team to establish close, collaborative relationships with one-another. Teams are most effective when people trust one another and communicate well. As a leader, you need to help this trust and communication develop.

Build the trust of your team by being honest with your people. Admit when you've made a mistake, and acknowledge that team members might know more than you do in certain areas. This willingness to be humble will go a long way in establishing trust.

Your team looks to you for clues on how to act; if you display trust and communicate openly, people are likely to behave that way with each other as well. So "walk the walk" as an authentic leader, and be a good role model.

Good communication is essential for successful teams. People who know how to express themselves clearly, even when they're talking about difficult situations, are more effective and successful than people whose communication tends to break down under pressure.

So, coach your people on basic communication skills such as Active Listening, Assertiveness, and Conflict Resolution. You can also use the Johari Window to help them understand one-another better.

Focusing on Goals ("Goal Emphasis")

Leaders use this dimension when they communicate shared goals, and work to motivate people to achieve these.

Start by practicing Management by Objectives, by helping people understand how their objectives align with those of the organization. When these are in sync, people will be happier and more productive.

You also need to help your people to become enthusiastic about the organization's mission. Inspire them with business storytelling, and by helping them understand how the work they're doing contributes to the greater good.

Then, make sure that your team has SMART goals in place. If your team is unsure of its goals, or if its goals are constantly changing, productivity and morale will fall.

You can also communicate your team's goals effectively with a Team Charter. This further clarifies objectives, and explains what people can and can't do to achieve the team's mission.

Helping People Work ("Work Facilitation")

Leaders work on this dimension when they provide the tools and resources that people need to meet their work goals.

It's your responsibility to keep your team safe and healthy, so start by making sure that they have a healthy workplace to work in. After all, people will struggle to focus and excel in an unhealthy or uncomfortable environment!

Next, make sure that your team has all of the resources it needs to do its work effectively and meet its objectives. (Don't forget that resources also include assets such as time, knowledge, and help from other people.)

And train and develop your people effectively; and make sure that people know their priorities, so that they can manage their time and resources properly.


These four factors get you started with leadership, but you can develop your skills much further. If you want to build skills in all areas of leadership, take our How Good Are Your Leadership Skills? self-test, and find out where else you can improve.

Key Points

David Bowers and Stanley Seashore created the Four Factor Theory of Leadership in the mid-60s.

The four dimensions are:

  1. Providing support.

  2. Encouraging teamwork.

  3. Focusing on goals.

  4. Helping people work effectively.

You can use the four factors as a solid base when building your leadership skills. Bear in mind, however, that you'll need to learn much more than this if you want to be an effective leader.

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