An Overall Perception of Cognitive Resource Theory of Leadership

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Cognitive Resource Theory

Cognitive resource theory of leadership deals with the psychology of organizations and industries. The key variables to describe a good leader in this theory are intelligence and experience. Read more…

Cognitive resource theory was propounded by Fred Fiedler, Vecchio and Joe Garcia as a re-conceptualization of the Fiedler Contingency Model of leadership. This theory discerns that stress can be a factor that prevents an intelligent leader from being efficient. As per this theory, there is no ideal leader. Leaders are said to be either task oriented or those who prioritize human relationships; but leaders are required to deal with various situations and different stress levels. This theory will be explained in three parts, which are as follows.

Cognitive Resource Theory in Brief

Effect of Stress

Cognitive resource theory states that, an intelligent leader or a leader with a high IQ can work efficiently under low stress situation. This is because the stress impairs a persons ability to think effectively. As an intellectual person will seek for rational solutions but, not all problems have rational solutions and that is why he may not be resourceful.

In a high-stress situation, a person with lower IQ level but more work experience will be able to lead better. Similarly, the theory indicates that a leader with higher IQ/ intelligence will perform better than a more experienced leader in low-stress situations. This is because an experienced leader will rely more on past occurrences and experiences than being able to think out of the box. His experience, in a way, becomes his way of reacting to a stimulus. On the other hand, an intelligent leader will be able to use his intellect to seek solutions.

Directiveness and Group Support

An intelligent leader gives intellectual effort in planning, rationalizing, decision-making and in making strategies to solve a task. Also, he needs to be an efficient communicator to instruct and guide. An intelligent leader seeks support from his team and depending on the level of 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 maybe blocked out. When in stress, intelligence does not help and that’s when a forceful commanding ability is required. Hence, a leader must be directive. Without the support from his team members, a leader cannot act efficiently and that depicts dependency.

Behavioral Implications

It was tested in the theory, that more-intelligent leaders spoke more when in high stress than less intelligent leaders. Intelligent leaders felt the punch of the deadline pressures and also people in their teams contributed less to creative ideas because of the leaders babbling tendency. Intelligent leaders 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. Therefore, such jobs require minimum leadership. 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.

Pros and Cons of the Theory


  • Cognitive resource theory helps in understanding the role of intellectual abilities and organizational performances in solving tasks.
  • It differentiates the abilities of a skilled labor from an experienced labor and indicates how they are useful.
  • Cognitive resource theory also suggests that a leader should not be tested based on his/her intellect but on his ability to manage stress.


  • 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.
  • Cognitive resource theory also, does not talk about those leaders who have both, a good IQ and a good work experience.
  • There has been no mention made about the type of tasks that need to be dealt with.
  • It is not totally correct that simple jobs do not require an intelligent or an experienced leader. No matter how simple a job is, it requires someone who has had some experience and some knowledge so that the task can be accomplished quicker and errors can be avoided.

Irrespective of the above criticisms, the cognitive resource theory holds an important place in the leadership theories and in organizational and industrial psychology. Nonetheless, cognitive resource theory demands further extension and modification.

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