Leadership Theories - The Most Important Theories of Leadership

• Interested in leadership theories?
• Want to know what the most important theories of leadership are?

• Here's one of the educational leadership articles from the PD Guy

• Read about e.g. transformational leadership theory ...
• ... situational leadership theory, management theories ...
• ... contingency theory, trait theory of leadership - and more.


Leadership Philosophy and Theories

Because effective leadership is so vital to businesses and corporations of all sizes some very smart people have given it a lot of thought, and many studies have been conducted on the subject.

Everyone wants to know what styles of leadership are best and what type of people make the best leaders. You, too, right?

Well, lots of leadership theories have emerged that help answer some of these questions and concerns. Those leadership theories may not be all that relevant to the perfect born leaders, but since there are so VERY few of those, these leadership theories are good to know for the rest of us.

So, let's take quick a look at a number of these theories of leadership. My goal here is to give you an overview ... and - in time - give you some in depth information on the most relevant and important kinds of leadership philosophy and leadership theory.

The Great Man Theory

The Great Man theory believes that leaders are born and they fulfil their destiny by becoming great leaders.

The great leaders are viewed as heroic figures, somehow better than merely normal humans.

This is an old leadership theory (belief) that has gone by the wayside now but it used to be popular, particularly during times of military conflict.

In fact the word 'dictator' stems from the old early Roman Empire (the republic). A dictator was a person people trusted (say, a judge) who was temporarily invested with absolute power - typically in times of serious conflict - for instance to counter an enemy invasion.

As we all know today, the problem is finding a person who has enough integrity to let go of that absolute power again once the threat is over ...

Are You Born with Great Leadership Traits?
- Trait Theories of Leadership

Trait theories of leadership have much in common with the great man theory, and they, too were popular at one time. These leadership theories contend that leaders all share common traits and rise to greatness because of their natural qualities.

Some of our greatest thinkers and writers (e.g. Plato in 'The Republic' and Plutarch in 'Lives' ... plus much later Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton) have subscribed to this line of thought.

And of course there is a lot of truth in this. What makes a good leader is an extremely interesting question.

The primary problems with these you-are-born-to-lead theories are:

- many people are born with the same qualities manifest and they do not naturally become leaders

- people who are not born with these qualities manifest are able to acquire them and rise to greatness.

- those who lead well in one situation do not necessarily lead well in a different situation.

So, there is some point and truth to the trait theories of leadership, but they don't tell the whole truth - not by a long stretch.

What we now know that pretty much anyone has the capability to be a leader (even if most people don't use - or want to use - those capabilities). Leadership ability and good leadership skills can be taught, practiced and learned.

Behavioral Leadership

Behavioral leadership theory arose partly because of the obvious flaws inherent in just looking at the person (which is what the early trait theories did). Now, the focus changed to the actions - the actual behavior of the leader.

So, what do good leaders actually do? asked the researchers (like e.g. Kurt Lewin). These researchers lined up three basic leadership styles ...

- autocratic leadership style (authoritarian leadership style)
(the leader makes all decisions, demands obedience + rewards & punishes)

- democratic leadership style (participative leadership style)
(leader-assisted collective decision processes are used)

- laissez faire leadership style (free rein leadership style)
(the leader doesn't interfere at all unless specifically asked to)

... and evaluated work performance under each kind of work climate.

The results indicated that the democratic climate was preferable. So 'leader only' (autocratic leadership style) and 'no leader' (laissez faire leadership style) aren't as good as somewhere in between (leader-assisted democratic leadership style).

This of course is hardly surprising, seeing as how we humans - physically speaking - are a form of social herd animal. All else being equal we actually prefer for someone to take the lead ... just not too much. :-)

People Orientation + Process Orientation versus
Goal Orientation + Production Orientation

Another way of looking at leaders is looking at what they are oriented towards: People and production or goals and production.

One such model, the managerial grid model, was developed in the 1950s (by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton) and has since been developed further. This model uses a grid based on an x-axis of 'concern for production' and an y-axis of 'concern for people'. Within this framework seven styles of leadership behavior are described:

- The indifferent leadership style
(low concern for both people AND production, focus: avoiding mistakes)

- The opportunistic style of leadership
(low concern for both people AND production, focus: personal gain)

- The accommodating leadership style
(high concern for people, low for production)

- The dictatorial leadership
(high concern for production, low concern for people)

- The paternalistic style of leadership
(leader alternates between the accommodating and the dictatorial leadership styles)

- The status quo leadership style
(compromise between company goals and workers' needs)

- The sound (or: team) style of leadership
(high concern for both people and production)

Since the managerial grid model focuses on behavior it is also based on a behavioral theory.

Situational Leadership Theory

A challenge to all kinds of behavioral leadership theory is that behavior is not always the same among all leaders, and not even for one leader over time. In fact, one particular leader must usually change his behavior to match the task at hand.

Situational leadership theory originally appeared as a reaction to the trait theory of leadership. Some theorists (e.g. Herbert Spencer in the 1880s) claimed that different times call for different kinds of leaders - and so no optimal profile of a leader exists, because the leader is actually a product of the situation.

This, of course, is also only half of a truth. You cannot just focus on behavior and leave the person out of the equation. And so we, once again but now enriched by knowledge of actual behavior, have to focus on the traits of a good leader.

The Leader Attribute Pattern Approach

Leadership trait theory is not 'dead', and neither should it be, because, like I said, there is in fact some truth to it.

Modern theorists (like for instance S. J. Zaccaro and R. J. Foti) have started to look at patterns of traits, leading them to start viewing leaders as integrated wholes rather than just as a bunch of traits.

Obviously this seems like a good idea, because hey, leaders are individual human beings, and the whole is usually more than just the sum of its parts.

Certain qualities are more important to leaders than others and the traits of a good leader can in fact be described - as I have endeavoured to do on the 'mother page' of this one, What Makes a Good Leader.

Just remember: You don't have to be born with those traits, to a large extent they are choices, and most of them can be learned.

The Contingency Theory of Leadership

Contingency theory is the modern version of situational leadership theory mixed with some modern trait leadership theory, more or less.

Contingency theory assumes that different situations call for different leadership styles and so no one leadership style is always effective. In other words:

People are adaptable and what makes a good leader is the ability to switch traits and leadership styles to fit the need as it arises.

These modern theories include for example: the Fiedler contingency model; the Vroom-Yetton decision model; the path-goal theory by Robert House; and the Hersey-Blanchard situational theory.

Functional Leadership Theory

As a side order, we might briefly look at functional theory (e.g. J. R. Hackman & R. E. Walton in the 1980s and J. R. Hackman & R. Wageman in 2005). This branch of leadership theories are focused on the work group and maintain that the job of the leader is to make sure the group functions well.

Since an organization is essentially a large work group these leadership theories can be applied to leadership in general as well. A leader is expected to perform 5 functions when promoting organizational effectiveness:

a) monitoring the surrounding environment
b) organizing the activities of the work force
c) teaching and coaching people
d) motivating people
e) intervening actively in the work of the group or organization

Transactional Leadership Theory
- and Its Cousins, the Simplified Management Theories

Transactional Analysis (by Eric Berne who died 1970) is: a) a theory of personality, b) a systematic psychotherapy and c) a theory of communication. It is applied for change and growth. It can be applied to both systems, organizations, groups, families and individual people (the main focus).

A few of the tenets of Transactional Analysis are that 'people are OK', 'everyone can think', 'people decide their story and destiny, and these decisions can be changed'. The aim is to move towards freedom and presence in the here-and-now.

The focus of transactional leadership is the relations between a group and its leadership. The theory maintains that a leader has power because the group agrees to follow the leader - to reach a predetermined goal.

Ergo: The group (or: organization) empowers the leader to lead. This includes the power to evaluate, correct and train group members, plus reward effectiveness.

This actually makes a great deal of sense. We all have free will, and in truth nobody can force us to do something we do not choose to do. We can be punished, tortured or killed, yes, but we cannot be forced.

Simplified versions of transactional leadership theory (i.e. some other management theories) focus more on how to organize the employees and how they perform. Rewards and punishments are meted out accordingly. Staff members are told what to do and are expected to do it without brining new ideas or individuality to the task.

Management theories like this are still often used in business; even though they probably produce less than optimal results. Perhaps they can be seen as a transition from old school authoritarian leadership to more advanced leadership models.

Transformational Leadership Theory

Transformational leadership theory (introduced by James MacGregor Burns in the late 1970s) is focused on change, both in individuals and in systems and organizations. (Transformational leadership theory is sometimes called relationship theory as well).

Communication is a very important tool for the transformational leader, and the whole point is to motivate and build up employees, so they'll identify with the mission and take responsibility for their work.

The transformational leader is supposed to not only be a role model, but also to know and understand the employees / group members. With understanding of their strengths and weaknesses the leader may assign the employees tasks and challenges which optimize both their performance and their development.

All members of the group have a voice and are made to feel highly valued so they are compelled to work for ethical reasons as well as a paycheck.

Ideally transformational leadership should make employees / group members into leaders themselves - if nothing else, leaders of their own work lives.

Apart from that the focus of the transformational leader is vision of the organization (the big picture), and working out the details is assigned to others.

The Personal Development Guy's
Most Basic Theory of Leadership

In my opinion the most important thing in leadership are these very simple things:

Love what you do and do your very best at it. You need a vision, some goals to go with it and some people to help you. The more you can make these people love what they do, the more they, too, will do their very best.

Yep, that's simplified. But, hey, the most important things in life are simple. And sometimes it's good to be reminded of that. :-)

Leadership Theories: The Conclusion

These are some of the main leadership theories being used in the corporate world today.

As for theories of leadership that suggest leaders are born, it should be emphasized that leaders can certainly also be made. Some people may have natural abilities that make them, say, better speakers, better organizers or better nurturers, but these skills can also be learned.

In fact, many corporations have training programs in place that teach various leadership theories along with the practical skills needed to implement them.

Educating current staff and promoting change and development from within is a great way to foster loyalty, employee satisfaction and productivity.

So then, which leadership is the best? Obviously the newer, more modern leadership theories have advantages over the old ones because they're actually built upon them and also incorporate more experience and know-how. But it really isn't possible to single out one leadership theory that is best for all.

The leadership style that is best suited for a company or situation depends on a lot of things such as (e.g.) the nature of the business, the organization, the marketplace, the employees and the current situation.

Perhaps the most important thing that can be learned from all these leadership theories is that one specific method or theory won't work in every circumstance, so to be the most effective, presence and flexibility is needed.

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