f you’ve never delved into the field of leadership studies as a businessperson or college student, you really should. There are dozens of fascinating theories from the field that can help you become a better leader or at the very least offer insights into the reasons why we act the way we do when leading or being led. While leadership studies is a much broader field than can be addressed in a short article like this one, we’ve pulled together some of the biggest and best theories put forth by a variety of leadership studies academics, providing you with an excellent primer for understanding not only the fundamentals of leadership studies as a discipline but also for being a better employee, leader, or mentor at work and in your personal life.
Do you believe that some people are just born to lead? That’s the basis behind this early 20th century theory proposed by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle believed that history could largely be explained through the actions of “great men,” individuals who he believed exerted high levels of influence over others through their inborn charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or drive for power. While there may be some truth to Carlyle’s idea that some people are born with characteristics that make them more apt to become leaders, his theory was refuted soundly by Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed that even those predisposed to leadership couldn’t emerge as influential figures without the help of social conditions outside of their control, and that great leaders were more the products of their environments than any particular inborn talents. It’s an interesting issue and one that we still struggle with today when trying to figure out just what drives some into great leadership roles, whether it’s nature, nurture, or some combination of the two.
Taking a look at trait theory, you’ll see that it is in many ways related to Great Man Theory when it comes to understanding leadership. In the 1930s, many working in leadership studies believed that the traits of leaders were simply different than those of non-leaders, and that effective leaders were born, not made. A number of studies were done that looked at those in leadership roles, examining their physical, mental, and social characteristics to come up with a list of traits that could be linked to leadership effectiveness. While researchers initially thought there was great promise in this theory, studies would go on to show that there were no universal traits that consistently separated effective leaders from other individuals, though this may have been in part to blame on poor methodology on the part of the researchers. Yet these findings do bring up some interesting points and also showcase just how hard it is to pin down what separates good leaders from bad ones.
The idea of a participative leadership style arises from the work of Dr. Rensis Likert in 1967. Likert proposed several types of leadership styles including exploitative authoritative, benevolent authoritative, consultative, and participative. Participative leaders were those who show great concern for employees and use input and advice from these individuals when making decisions. A similar theory was proposed by Dr. Gary Yukl in 1971, with the leadership style being called delagative rather than participative. Today, the ability to be seen as a participative leader can still be important and those in leadership positions that don’t take the thoughts and feelings of their subordinates into account are rarely regarded as truly great leaders.
If you’re going to learn about leadership studies, you’ll need to know about this big theory that has been analyzed and studied extensively by big names in the field like Dansereau, Graen, Haga, and Cashman. This theory was a hot topic in the mid-1970s and takes its roots in the larger social exchange theory, a social psychological perspective that explains social change and stability as a process of negotiated exchanges between parties. It isn’t hard to see how this could apply in the workplace, and that’s just what organizational scholars did, showing that leaders develop different relationships with each subordinate as each party defines their respective roles. The studies also revealed that when leader-member exchanges were of high quality, employees were less likely to leave, had better job attitudes, were more willing to participate, made faster career progress, were promoted more often, and showed greater organizational commitment — all things that any leader should be striving to get out of subordinates, making this one theory any present or future leader should learn more about.
Situational theories of leadership generally propose that leaders choose the best course of action based on variables that change from situation to situation. It was first proposed by Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard, who believed that leaders chose their leadership style based on the maturity or level of the follower, dividing up the necessary leadership behaviors into four different quadrants. These included directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating, in order of those that provide the most supervision and direction to those that require the least. The fundamental lesson of this theory is that there is no one “best” style of leadership, and to truly be effective, leaders have to change and adapt their methods depending on the situation and the person or group they’re working with. Not bad advice, no matter who you’re leading.
If you believe that a given environment determines what leadership strategy is best, then you’ll want to learn more about the Contingency Theory of Leadership. Proposed by Dr. Fred Fiedler, this theory states that the best leadership style isn’t set in stone but varies depending on a given situation, meaning that some leaders simply may not be a good fit for certain environments. Fiedler developed the Least Preferred Coworker Scale as a way to determine which managers would be the best fit for a leadership assignment. In order to determine whether a leader is favorable for a given task, Fiedler examined three factors: the leader-member relationship, the degree of task structure, and the leader’s position power. If all three of these dimensions are high, the leader, and his or her leadership style, is considered a favorable match. For example, a leader with a drill sergeant-like attitude probably isn’t the best choice for an office that requires creative thinking and collaboration.
The Path-Goal Theory of Leadership was developed in the mid-’70s by Martin G. Evans and Robert J. House and draws heavily on an earlier theory by Victor Vroom called the Expectancy Theory. The theory relies on the assumption that subordinates will be motivated to do work when three conditions are fulfilled: they believe they can do the work, they believe their efforts will result in a specific outcome or reward, and they believe the outcome or reward will be worthwhile. The Path-Goal part of the theory comes in with respect to how leaders can help get subordinates to feel this way about the task at hand. According to their theory, leaders will be able to improve the motivation of subordinates by increasing the number of payoffs, making the path to the goal clear through direction and coaching, removing obstacles and road blocks, and making work more satisfying. This theory may be decades old, but the lessons it offers are just as relevant in today’s workplace as they were then, offering some scientifically backed fundamentals of leadership everyone should know.
In 1977, Robert Greenleaf published a series of essays on a new type of leadership that he coined “servant leadership.” Servant leadership is focused on the follower, not the leader, and encourages those in leadership positions to pay close attention to the needs, desires, and motivations of subordinates. His work would be the inspiration for Larry Spears, who broke Greenleaf’s leadership model down into ten characteristics every servant leader must have. These include: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth, and commitment to building a community. With organizations across the nation trying to build more transparent and ethical leadership strategies in the wake of numerous scandals, this theory of leadership has received increased attention and should be something every well-rounded leader learns more about.
Implicit Leadership Theories aren’t drawn from textbooks or leadership guides. They’re the ideas and theories that individuals develop based on their own beliefs and assumptions about effective leadership. These theories are how individuals analyze their experiences with leaders and determine who’s effective, who’s in charge, and who’s doing the right thing. There’s been a fair amount of research in this area, with academics discovering that these individual theories change over time in response to experience, education, and social influences and that they can be shaped by our outside beliefs, values, and personality traits. This is something that’s important to know not only in how you define yourself as a leader, but in helping you to understand how others will see you as a leader as well.
Authentic Leadership Theory is relatively new, coming onto the scene in 2008 when it was coined by researchers Bruce Avolio and Fred Luthans, and it’s undoubtedly a term you’ve heard in business or leadership literature before. At the heart of the authentic leadership theory is the idea that leaders should demonstrate a pattern of behavior that promotes a healthy work environment, both mentally and physically, creates an ethical climate, fosters self-awareness, is transparent, and offers an internal moral perspective. That’s a tall order, but one that many businesses, some hopelessly focused on profit over personnel, may need to find in management to help retain and motivate employees.
This leadership theory is drawn from the term “charismatic authority,” coined by sociologist Max Weber, which he defined as “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed or ordained by him.” Weber believed that certain people are exceptional due to their individual personalities, which makes them more attractive and charismatic as leaders, with people naturally wanting to follow their lead. If you want to see this in action, head to any schoolyard playground and see which kids are running the show; they’re likely to be the most charismatic. Yet, this type of leadership isn’t the most stable, Weber warns, and can easily dissolve in the absence of the leader or when his or her qualities are called into question.
If you’re looking for a leadership theory with a broad base of research behind it, then Transformational Leadership Theory is probably your best bet. It has been the subject of countless books, articles, and academic investigations from the 1980s up to the present day, including a seminal work on the theory by James McGregor Burns in 1978. According to Burns’ book, transformational leadership exists in opposition to transactional leadership. Where transactional leadership is superficial, transformational leadership is a process by which real, lasting changes are made in both followers and leaders. Burns states that in transformational leadership, “leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.” In subsequent literature, some researchers have suggested that transformational leaders motivate followers by focusing on a common purpose, addressing intrinsic rewards and higher needs like self-actualization, and by developing a deep and lasting commitment with and in those being led. It is ideally what every leader should aspire to be, and there’s more than a few books out there that can help any budding business professional learn a thing or two about this style of management.
You may be a great leader, but you alone can’t change a situation if there are other factors that are holding you back. That idea is at the heart of the Substitutes for Leadership Theory, which gained prominence during the 1970s with research from Kerr and Jermier. It states that characteristics of an organization, task, and the subordinates themselves may negate or change the effects of leadership behaviors. The theory was developed to help explain why there aren’t stronger correlations between leader behaviors and subordinates’ satisfaction and performance, something that was also touched on with the earlier work into Trait Theory. Even those that exhibit positive leadership traits may be stymied by an inflexible organization, inexperienced subordinates, or repetitive tasks, among many other factors. While it might not be as inspiring as other theories on this list, it’s important to remember that sometimes, it isn’t you; a job just might not be the right fit.
First introduced in research by McGrath in 1962, and expanded on by Hackman and Walton in 1986, this theory addresses how specific leader behaviors contribute to organizational and leadership effectiveness. According to Functional Leadership Theory, it’s the leader’s main job to see that the needs of a given group are taken care of so that members of the group can, in turn, do their jobs. This, it is argued, also ultimately leads to greater group effectiveness and cohesion. In more recent research, the main functions of a leader have been expanded on more precisely and can include environmental monitoring, organizing subordinate activities, teaching and coaching subordinates, motivating others, and intervening actively in the group’s work, with the goal of building relationships and setting clear roles and standards for all parties involved.