Cognitive Resource Theory of Leadership

16 July 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The Cognitive Resource Theory of Leadership was developed by Fred Fiedler and Joe Garcia in 1987. The cognitive resources of a leader identified in this model are their experience, intelligence, competence and task-relevant knowledge. This theory discerns that stress can be a factor that prevents an intelligent leader from being effective and there is no ideal leader for all business situations and all business seasons. 

Leaders are said to be either task oriented or relationships oriented. Leaders who are task-oriented tend to view person’s worth in terms of what is to be done. Leaders who emphasize the importance of human relations tend to view co-workers more favourably over task. These factors confirm why there is no ideal leader profile, because every situation is different and the leaders are required to deal with various situations under different stress levels. 

Fred Fiedler states that a leader uses his or her intelligence to formulate strategies, communicate action plans to the group and then seek the support from the group members to execute the plans. At any one of these phases, stress may change or have an impact on the effective outcome. 

The leader is more effective when his style is more orderly, premeditated and authoritarian. However, Fred Fiedler believed that intelligence is not always an important and essential factor in leadership. An intelligent leader or a leader with a high IQ can work effectively and able to think out of the box under low-stress situations, where as an experienced leader will rely more on past occurrences and experiences.

As an intellectual person will seek for rational solutions but, not all problems have rational solutions probably he may not be resourceful under high-stress situations. In a high-stress situation, a person with lower IQ level but more work experience may be able to lead better. Further, if a leader has poor relationships with the group, stress could be an impediment in achieving leadership potential.  

A leader needs to be an effective communicator to instruct and guide. An intelligent leader provides intellectual effort in planning, rationalizing, strategizing and decision-making to realize business objectives. He seeks support from team members and depending on the level of work stress and his relationship with his team members, decides how efficiently he will be able to deal with a situation.

If he is not in good terms with his team members then his leadership qualities may be diluted in execution. When under stress, intelligence does not help and that’s where a forceful commanding ability with experience is required. Hence, for a leader, effective communication is a must and therefore must have clarity of purpose, scope and expectations of a task to be directive. However, without the support from his team members, a leader cannot be effective and that depicts dependency. 

Intelligent leaders speak more when in high-stress situations than less intelligent leaders. They feel the punch of the deadline pressures and generally people in their teams contribute less to creative ideas. They could end up being upset and could also overreact to small things, negatively-affecting other team members too. 

Stress can be transferred from one person to the other if a stressed-out person is unable to handle it. The theory also states that simple jobs or tasks do not require intelligence or experience. If a job is simple and it does not require directions and guidance then no matter how good the leader is, his support will not be needed by his team.  Therefore, such jobs require minimum leadership, more management. In using the Cognitive Resource Theory, there are a number of pre qualifications and limitations to be mindful of.

  •     The Cognitive Resource Theory helps in understanding the role of intellectual abilities and organisational performances in solving tasks. Stress is common in leadership situations and this theory emphasizes how it limits even an intelligent person’s ability to lead.
  •     It differentiates the abilities of a skilled labour from an experienced labour and indicates how they are useful. The theory helps to predict whether a certain type of person will be able to lead in a stressful situation.
  •     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.

  •     Although there are many types and degrees of intelligences including Intelligence Quotient (IQ), Emotional Quotient (EQ), Spiritual Quotient (SQ), Physical Quotient (PQ) the Cognitive Resource Theory doesn’t account for them.
  •     The nature of tasking itself is not addressed. There are many types of tasks a group may need to achieve and each may involve a different level of stress and hence, require a different leadership method.
  •     Types of stresses have not been covered in this theory. Physical stress and psychological stress can have different impacts on an individual’s task-solving ability. Further, the stress could be positive or negative from the recipient’s perspective.
  • 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.
  •     Cognitive resource theory also, does not talk about those leaders who have both, a good IQ and a good work experience.

Irrespective of the above criticisms, the Cognitive Resource Theory holds an important place in the leadership theories and in organisational development. Nonetheless, the Cognitive Resource Theory demands further extension and exploration. In conclusion - the leader’s abilities and intelligence aid organisational success when they are directive, in a stress-free situation, the organisations’ members are supportive and the task requires high intellect.
“The quality of leadership, more than any other single factor, determines the success or failure of an organisation.” 
-- Fred Fiedler
(This is the 19th column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [B.Sc. Eng. (Hons.); M.B.A.;  C.Eng.; F.I.E. (SL); M.C.S. (SL); M.I.D.P.M. (UK);  F.I.A.P. (UK); M.B.C.S. (UK)], a Management, HR, OD  and ICT Consultant,  Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant – HRD – Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd). He can be contacted at

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