The different theories of leadership provide different standpoints on leadership approaches, as well as different frameworks for understanding how the practice of leading other individuals, teams, or entire organizations works.
The Major Theories of Leadership
1. Trait Theories of Leadership
The notion that leadership is based on the attributes of an individual is called the trait theory of leadership. Several philosophical writings have tried to explore the qualities that distinguish an individual as leaders. Examples of such include the “Republic” by the classical Greek philosopher Plato and “Lives” by the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch. Essentially, the theory argues that some attributes or characteristics make an individual an effective and efficient leader.
During the ninth century when the traditional authority of monarchs, lords, and bishops started to diminish, philosophers and sociologists explored further the trait theory at length. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle identified the talents, skills, and physical attributes of individuals who rose to power in his book “Heroes and Hero Worship” published in 1841 and English polymath Francis Galton examined the leadership qualities in the families of powerful individuals in his book “Hereditary Genius” published in 1869.
Modern studies have used the trait theory of leadership as a framework for determining either heritable attributes or teachable characteristics that differentiate leaders from non-leaders. From the perspective of heritable trait theorists, leadership is unique to only a selected number of individuals with innate and immutable attributes that cannot be developed. On the other hand, from the perspective of other trait theorists, there are individuals with certain characteristics that can be honed for them to become competent leaders.
2. The Great Man Theory
Similar to certain aspects of the trait theory is the great man theory of leadership. Carlyle popularized this theory during the 1980s. Adherents have argued that history can be largely explained by the impact of great individuals or heroes and influential individuals who have personal charisma, attributes, wisdom, or political competency to use their authorities in a manner that result in a decisive historical impact.
English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer provided a counterargument to the ideas set forth by Carlyle and similar thinkers. In his book “The Study of Sociology” published in 1896, Spencer argued that great individuals are the products of their societies and their actions or achievements would not be possible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes. Nevertheless, this argument provides another perspective to the great man theory.
Central to the variants of the great man theory of leadership is a notion that leaders are born and not made. One major variant argues that these great individuals possess natural attributes that make them influential leaders. On the other hand, the other major variant argues that favorable social environments are instrumental in giving rise to successful and influential leaders. Nevertheless, the theory implies that those in power deserve to be there because they have special endowment acquired either since birth or from the impacts of their nurturing surroundings.
3. Management or Transactional Leadership Theory
The management theory of leadership focuses on the transactional roles and responsibilities of leaders. Hence, also known as the transactional leadership theory, it argues that the primary goal of a leader is to supervise individuals, organize these individuals and the leadership setting, and develop and implement a system of rewards and punishment to motivate these individuals.
Supervision, organization, and performance are the focus of transactional leadership. As a theory and a specific style of leadership, it is effective in increasing the efficiency of established procedures or routines, handling new organizations characterized by chaos and the absence of rules, and establishing and standardizing practices, processes, and behaviors. For existing organizations or any leadership contexts, the focus of the transactional style of leadership is to keep things the same. In other words, the goal is to maintain the status quo.
Key characteristics of transactional leadership include the use of rewards and punishment to maintain compliance or as a way to motivate people and an emphasis on directives and actions. Transactional leaders are also passive or less involved with regard to building and maintaining deeper relationships with their people. They also think inside the box or from within the organization rather. Some aspects of transactional leadership exhibit elements of authoritarianism.
4. Relationship or Transformational Leadership Theory
The relationship theory or transformational theory of leadership is a counterargument to the management or transactional theory of leadership. It specifically argues that the primary goal of a leader is to motivate and inspire individuals to establish and maintain commitment in achieving shared goals and objectives.
Enhancing motivation, increasing morale, and improving the performance of individuals are the focus of transformational leadership. As a theory and a specific style of leadership, it is useful in promoting an environment in which teamwork or collaboration is necessary, increasing the satisfaction of followers or reducing attrition rates, and supporting the delegation of other leadership tasks across a team or group.
The critical characteristics of transformational leadership include a focus on mentoring through interpersonal communication, openness about the identification of goals and objectives, and the promotion of the collective interest of the team or group. Transformational leaders are active or more involved with regard to building and maintaining deeper relationships with their people. Some aspects of transformational leadership exhibit elements of a democratic style of leadership.
5. Behavioral Theories of Leadership
Behaviors or a set of behaviors and predispositions can determine the effectiveness of a leader. Take note that more explicit concepts built around this core premise fall under the behavioral theories of leadership. Theorists have researched and analyzed the behaviors of successful leaders, determined and developed a behavior taxonomy related to leadership, and identified broad styles of leadership with a different set of behaviors or behavior taxonomy.
American psychologist David McClelland provided one of the assumptions under the behavioral theories. He argued that effective leadership coincides with a well-developed positive ego and a strong personality. To be specific, he explained that behavioral predispositions that demonstrate self-confidence and high self-esteem are not only useful but also essential in leading people.
The Leadership Studies conducted by the Ohio State University in 1945 identified two sets of behaviors that correspond to effective leadership. The first set is called “initiating structure” that includes “task-oriented behaviors” needed to accurately communicate with followers, define goals and objectives, and determine how tasks should be performed. The second is called “consideration” that includes “social-oriented behaviors” required to build an interpersonal relationship with followers and maintain mutual trust.
6. Situational Leadership Theory
Central to the assumptions of situational leadership theory is that notion that different situations require different approaches to leadership. Behavioral scientist Paul Hersey and management consultant Ken Blanchard are credited for the inception and promotion of situation-specific leadership model in their book “Management of Organizational Behavior” published in 1969.
Earlier referred to as the life cycle theory of leadership, Hersey and Blanchard reintroduced and renamed it as the situational leadership model in the third edition of their book. They argued that there is no single best style of leadership. An effective and successful leader is someone who can adapt their leadership style in accordance with the “performance readiness” or ability and willingness of the individual or group.
There are several more specific models based on the situational theory of leadership. One involves categorizing leadership style into our behavior types: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating. The other involves categorizing leadership styles based on four maturity levels of the followers: unable and insecure, capable but unwilling, unable but confident, and very capable and confident.
7. Functional Leadership Model
The white paper “Leadership Behavior: Requirements for Leadership Training” authored by J. E. McGrath and published in 1962, and the book chapter “Leading Groups in Organizations” authored by J. R. Hackman and R. E. Walton and published in 1986 presented arguments centered on the notion that the primary responsibility of a leader is to take care of whatever that is necessary to the needs of the group. Similar arguments have been posited since and they collectively form the functional theories of leadership.
Central to functional-based leadership theories or models is a focus on how leadership occurs rather than focusing on who does the leading. Unlike the behavioral theories of leadership, the functional approach does not suggest ideal ways of behaving. Furthermore, unlike the situational theories of leadership, it does not match behaviors to circumstances or situations. Instead, it focuses on enabling a leader to think and decide what he or she needs to do to be successful in his or her role.
British leadership theorist and academic John Adair introduced the Action-Centered Leadership model as part of the greater functional leadership model. The model includes three overlapping concepts: the task that can only be performed by a team, the team composed of fully developed individuals, and the individuals who need challenges and motivations through tasks. Within this model are the eight key functions of a leader: defining the task, planning, briefing the team, controlling what happens, evaluating results, motivating individuals, organizing people, and setting an example.