As you would expect, the more people that study a concept, the more theories result, so this article picks out the key leadership theories that have formed the backbone of our understanding of leadership. More importantly, these theories can be used to help develop your skills as a leader.
It can be argued that the most popular leadership theories over the years can be placed in one of five categories:
Within each theory, there are a number of leadership styles and characteristics to learn to help create a well-rounded understanding of leadership.
The first of the key leadership theories; Trait theories provide the belief that people are born as good leaders and that the characteristics needed to be a good leader are inherited, commonly known as ‘traits’. It is a common view nowadays, that leadership isn’t a born trait after all, and that it can in fact be learned.
Trait theories do have a part to play, as these theories have highlighted that a good leader must have the following qualities, such as:
Typical theories within this category are of the Great Man and Trait Theories.
In contrast to the previous notion that leaders were born, behavioural theories represent the second of the key leadership theories and counters the argument by proposing that good leadership is about focusing on actions not on mental qualities or internal states, which trait theory suggested. This theory states that leaders can be taught and learn leadership through teaching and observation.
Should you lead a team, encouraging them team work and decision making or should you simply tell the team what to do? These key questions stem from the original main leadership style of Lewelin, who suggested that a leader could be one of three types:
It now transpires that in modern thinking, each leadership style is important, but rather than a person fitting into a pigeon hole of being one of the three types, a good leader uses each style, opting to select the right approach to suit the situation.
Which leads us nicely onto Contingent theories…
The next step in key leadership theories thinking is that leadership styles should be reflective on what environment the leader finds himself / herself in. The realisation here is that leaders should not be pigeon holed into one leadership type.
I once worked with a manager that told me, “I am a hands off manager, so if you need any help, just let me know.” That was a nice thought, but I internally cringed when he mentioned it to me. A great manager changes their style to suit the needs of the individual and the team.
Contingency theories attempt to depict certain styles to use in certain situations. For example, if something is urgent and needs completion right away, what style should you use? If a person needs more time to learn their task, how do you manage them? Should a leader be more people or tasks orientated, and so on and so forth?
Well known contingency leadership styles are from Situational Leadership Theory, which links leadership style with the task maturity of the individual or followers. Other common styles within this framework are Fielder’s contingency model, Path – Goal theory, and the Leadership Process Model.
Power theories are about influencing people through the concept of power and authority and how managers can influence people to get the job done.
There are effectively, two different angles here. The first is via the Transactional Leadership style, which suggests that people should be given clear direction and managed through rewards and punishments. This style is about focusing on developing tasks and creating structures that can provide the reward for meeting those tasks. When the employee meets this target, they get rewarded. Consequently, if they do not achieve their targets and are under performing, they get punished as a result. Obviously, punishment and reward can come in a number of different guises, but the principle of transactional style is the same.
Don’t get me wrong, elements of this leadership theory are effective and indeed used widely today; most managers use this concept as part of their leadership tool box to help achieve results and ensure the teams are meeting targets and working to the values set by the organisation. You often see this style in the form of pay rises as a result of a good yearly appraisal, or a bonus for hitting objectives.
The flaw here is that people can sometimes feel stifled and micro managed, with morale and motivation often faling victim, if it is used in excess.
The point is, it should be used in conjunction with other styles for maximum results.
The second style in the Power Theory section is that of French and Raven’s five forms of power. It highlights different elements of power and how a leader can influence people through the use of them. There are effectively three types of positional power (legitimate, coercive and rewards) and two type so personal power (charm and appeal). It suggests that using personal power is the most effective way, as this builds relationships and inspires the team to commit and share the common goals. It also appeases to good leadership ethics and characteristics.
In addition, successful influence tactics can help guide people to task completion and success by utilising the science behind human and social psychology.
Ultimately, a successful leader should use all of the key leadership theories available; the leader must act with virtue, leading by example and with integrity. The use of the softer side of leadership is also essential, like being able to effectively influence individuals and teams, and communicate effectively, using empathy, high level of emotional intelligence, and good decision making skills.
So too, a leader must be able to understand when and how to identify situations in order to use the correct leadership style to suit the situation.
The leader must effectively use power in a positive way that promotes success, growth and development.
The vital thing to remember is to learn the key leadership theories and take the positives from each one, using them when the situation dictates.