Major leadership theories

10 Major Leadership Theories and What They Each Represent

We all have our own leadership styles. Maybe you learned one, formally, or maybe you just developed your own over time. Here are ten of the best-known leadership theories, do you see your own style or management sway from one of these?

Let’s start with “The Skills Theory of Leadership”. This leadership theory tries to identify a set of key attributes using practical skills, rather than just general personality qualities. The main takeaway in this theory is that in order for people to follow you, then you require technical skills in your chosen field.

Basically, to have credibility for others, then you must be great at what you do. You then add important people skills, such as diplomacy and persuasion, as well as strategic thinking and the ability to see the bigger picture.

Transactional Leadership

“Transactional Leadership” and “Transformational Leadership” are two theories that we can consider together. Transactional leadership means as the term implies, that there is a transaction of sorts, a reciprocity of behavior between the leader and the follower. People will follow the transactional leader, based on a mix of rewards and punishments for their subordinates.

The transformational leadership theory, by contrast, states that their leaders will gain employee buy-in and commitment, by encouraging their followers. That is, inspiring them,  caring for them and sharing a vision with the team. These transformational leaders get results by proactively transforming the environment and the relationships.

There is also the common theory that specific leadership styles are the key to success. For example, Autocratic leadership, where leaders should “be autocratic and demanding”, Democratic leadership, where democratic leaders should “be democratic and participative”, or “be laissez-faire and leave people alone.”

I would suggest that the most well known style-based theory would be managerial grid, which is where a leader adopts a leadership style that is both uncompromising as well as people-friendly.

Another leadership theory is titled “Situational Leadership”. This theory argues that there are no one-size-fits all model and that certain skills and traits suit one organizational situation over another, and therefore a leader should always adapt. An example of this could be coaching a high school boys’ team.

This would imply a somewhat different leadership approach than if the same leader was coaching a girls team. They may have the same objectives and standards, however, they might require more of a disciplinarian for the boys however a highly relational coach for the girls.

The Contingency Theory

Another very similar leadership theory is “The Contingency Theory”. This theory assumes that the leader’s default style is also pretty much fixed in their ways, and maybe the leader is much more task-oriented than people-oriented. This theory then stipulates that you fit the right leader to the right situation, therefore matching the leader’s personal style to the setting.

Another one of the major leadership theories is the concept of servant leadership. This theory is somewhat of a blend between transformational and transactional leadership. Basically, it states that if a leader makes a priority of identifying and meeting followers’ needs, that is they serve rather than be served, then that leader creates an environment of cooperation and two-way trust, which results in far higher team performance.

Similar to transactional leadership theory, the leader-member exchange theory implies that leadership revolves around a fair exchange between the leader and the subordinate. Actually, it goes further to say that the exchange creates a deep respect for the leader which then affects performance and willingness to stay. The theory also goes on to suggest that leaders may want to address their tendency to alienate people.

The Great Man Theory

Then there is what was once called “The Great Man Theory.” It postulated that great leaders are born, and not made. A leader either had it, or didn’t.It went on to try and identify the attributes that these “natural born leaders” all had in common. Nowadays, we are all acutely aware that leadership is actually learnable as individuals, via leadership lessons. However, to a small degree, some people inherently have more leadership gifts than others.

That theory also went on to create another, called “Trait Theory of Leadership”. This was the research that examined what characteristics we should adapt, in order to lead effectively. That is, be like this and people will follow you. Although it went on to identify plenty of unique traits, not a single set ever emerged as ideal for every organization.

Ok, so there we have it; my explanation of the 10 major leadership theories, and that they actually mean. The better you know them the better you’re likely to lead.

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Lauren writes for a living, with a bunch of great brands as clients. Outside of word wrangling, Lauren enjoys tasting red wines (in moderation) and spending time on the open road.

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