Get to know the eight major theories of leadership

You will likely have witnessed many leadership types during your career, but what does it take to become a leader? In this article, we'll review the eight most common leadership theories that explain how and why people become leaders. Get to know the definitions of each leadership style and their assigned traits and behaviours. 

What is a leadership theory?

Leadership theory examines the qualities and traits of a good leader. It details the characteristics, qualities, and behaviours required to be an effective leader in accordance with each theory.

Leadership theory details the leadership styles that people may adopt in the workplace when managing a team. Some aspects that leadership theory analyses include personality traits, actions, the environment, situations, decision-making processes, relationships, and the ability to receive input. 

Major leadership theories

Here is a closer look at the eight most common types of leadership theory:

Great Man theory

The Great Man theory was one of the first theories on leadership. It makes the assumption that you are born with the qualities of a leader and the skillset cannot be learnt. The theory suggests that leaders have innate human characteristics, including:

  • Wisdom

  • Appeal

  • Assertiveness

  • Daring

  • Decisiveness

  • Charisma

  • Confidence

  • Intelligence

  • Sociability 

Great Man theory suggests that there are some people who are born to lead. The theory is known as “Great Man” because, at the time it was founded, leadership was thought of as a primarily male quality, especially within the military.

This theory suggests that being a leader is nature, rather than nurture. It is a skill you are either born with or without.

Trait theory

Trait theory is similar to Great Man theory, in that it suggests that there is a natural aptitude for leadership. However, trait theory suggests that people inherit qualities that make them good leaders, such as behavioural characteristics. As a result, they can be seen as naturally gifted leaders compared to others. 

The main traits of a good leader according to this theory include:

  • Self-confidence

  • Extroversion

  • Courage

  • Competence

  • Tenacity

  • Flexibility

  • Decisiveness

  • Assertiveness

  • Motivation qualities 

  • Dutiful approach

Interestingly, there are many people that possess the characteristics associated with this leadership theory, but many do not fulfil these roles and vice versa. Often, professionals are chosen for leadership positions in an organisation using trait theory.

Contingency theory

Contingency theory has a more open-minded approach to leadership. It suggests that there is no single correct type of leader because the best leadership style depends on the situation. Contingency theory predicts which style of leadership is best in which circumstance.

White and Hodgson, leadership researchers, suggest that effective leadership involves more than personal qualities. Rather, it is about finding the balance between context, needs, and behaviours. 

The following can influence leadership style according to contingency theory:

  • Routine at work

  • Work environment

  • Employee spirit

  • Work speed

  • Management approach

  • Team relationship

  • Company objectives

  • Employee maturity

Ultimately, it is down to the leader to decide on the management strategy once they have reviewed a number of variables, including the leadership style, the situation, and the qualities of the followers or reports.

Situational theory

Situational theory is very similar to contingency theory, but is broader. It simply suggests that no single leadership style is best. It recognises that a type of leadership style can be assigned to a specific task. As a result, this theory concludes that the best leaders are those that can adapt their leadership style according to the situation. 

According to researchers Hersey and Blanchard, there are four primary leadership styles, including:

  • Telling: Leaders tell people what to do and how to do it

  • Selling: Leaders sell their ideas to get followers to buy in to the process

  • Participating: Leaders offer followers a chance to take an active role in devising ideas and making decisions

  • Delegating: Leaders let followers make most of the decisions and handle most of the responsibility

Behavioural theory

In contrast to Great Man theory, behavioural theory suggests that effective leaders are made, not born. The theory is rooted in the actions of a leader, rather than their innate qualities.

The behavioural approach to leadership states that people can become leaders through teaching and observation. As a result, anyone can become an effective leader if they understand and implement particular behaviours.

Of course, this means that observing a leader and their leadership style is indicative of what the learned leadership style is. Therefore, managers need to be mindful of their own behaviour if they want to boost the output and morale of their team.

Behavioural leadership theory categorises leadership styles into the following areas:

  • People-focused leaders: Focus on the needs of the people

  • Task-focused leaders: Focus on goal-setting and achieving objectives

  • Participative (democratic) leaders: Include the whole team in the decision-making process

  • Status-quo leaders: Balance productivity with employee satisfaction

  • Indifferent (impoverished) leaders: Oversee team progress from a distance

  • Dictatorial leaders: Value progress and performance over the team

  • Country-club leaders: Prioritise the satisfaction and happiness of the team

  • Sound (team) leaders: Balance productivity and team morale

  • Opportunistic style leaders (OPP): Choose a leadership style based on situations

  • Paternalistic leaders: Choose to be strict but fair

Participative theory

Participative theory states that the ideal leadership style is one that takes others into account. It is sometimes called democratic leadership. In the workplace, this means that employees are directly involved in the decision making at their organisation. The leader mediates and devises actions based on the suggestions.

This leadership style was once a staple of many companies. It creates a sense of trust as leaders delegate responsibilities and offer feedback to facilitate professional growth. It also creates a sense of transparency, as each team member sees how their role slots into the bigger picture.

However, this leadership style has suffered in a remote-working climate as spontaneous, candid conversations occur less frequently than they did in an office.

Characteristics of participative leaders include:

  • Strong communication

  • Strong listening

  • Open-mindedness

  • Curiosity

  • Encouraging attitude

  • Collaborative approach

  • Receptiveness

  • Outreach

  • Critical thinking

  • Mindfulness

  • Self-assurance

Management theory

Management theory, sometimes known as transactional leadership, focuses on supervision, organisation, and group performance. It is founded in a system of rewards and punishment. This theory is regularly used in business as employees are typically rewarded when performance is high, but reprimanded when it is sub-par.

Management theory emphasises the value of hierarchy in a bid to obtain organisational effectiveness. The managers use their authority to enforce rules to inspire staff and improve productivity and performance. 

Managers who practise management leadership:

  • Discourage original thought

  • Emphasise their own interests

  • Encourage performance

  • Favour regulations and policies

  • Favour standardised processes

  • Target immediate objectives

Managers who implement transactional leadership styles typically concentrate on upholding existing company standards to ensure things go as planned, rather than trigger company expansion.

Relationship theory

Relationship theory, also known as transformational theory, focuses on the connections made between leaders and followers. 

Transformational leaders inspire their team to see the higher good of a task and motivate followers to go above and beyond what they are capable of. A key result of this leadership style is increased morale, which in turn, increases performance. 

Leaders who practise transformational leadership typically:

  • Give interaction a high priority

  • Set an example with actions rather than words

  • Self-manage

  • Are proactive in their own work

  • Promote the development of employees

  • Are receptive to innovation and fresh concepts

  • Take chances

  • Make difficult choices

  • Prioritise business and employee requirements

There are many ways to be a leader and you could argue that the majority of leadership theories are appropriate for the workplace. If you're looking to demonstrate your leadership abilities on your CV, cover letter, or LinkedIn profile, the TopCV experts can help.

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