Ten Leadership Theories in Five Minutes

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Kurt Lewin, the renowned psychologist and researcher, said it well: “There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” Well, how about ten good theories? To improve your ability to lead, here are ten of the best known leadership theories in five minutes. First there’s what was originally called “The Great Man Theory.” It postulated that great leaders are born, not made. You either have it or you don’t. And then it tried to identify the set of attributes that all of these natural born leaders have in common. While it’s now become clear that leadership is actually learnable. There’s indeed truth to the notion that some people inherently have more leadership gifts than others. So this was a good start. It spawned something called “The Trait Theory of Leadership,” a line of research that examines which individual characteristics we should pursue to lead effectively. The upside is that it’s easy to understand– be like this and people will follow you. But the downside is that it’s identified dozens of traits, and no single set has emerged as the ideal for all circumstances. So it can be overwhelming to attempt. Somewhat related is “The Skills Theory of Leadership”. Just like trait theory it tries to identify a set of key attributes, but in this case practical skills rather than just general qualities of a leader.

The bottom line on this one is that if you want people to follow you, you need technical skills in your field– that is you need to be good at what you’re doing so you have some credibility. You need people skills like persuasion and diplomacy and affability. And you need conceptual skills– the ability to see the big picture and to think strategically. Next there’s the theory that leadership style is the key to success– styles like “be autocratic and demanding” or “be democratic and participative” or “be laissez faire and leave people alone.” Probably the best known style-based theory is called “The Managerial Grid”. Adopt a leadership style that’s both people-friendly and uncompromising on performance. It’s a solid foundation, but there’s a bit more to leadership effectiveness. That’s where these next couple theories came from. “Situational Leadership” theory argues that there is no “one-size-fits all” model. Certain traits and skills and styles fit better in one situation than another, so the leader must adapt.

For example, coaching a high school boys’ team may imply a somewhat different approach than coaching high school girls. Same objectives and standards, perhaps, but to get great results might require more of a disciplinarian for the boys, but a highly relational coach for the girls. A closely connected idea is called “The Contingency Theory” of leadership. Whereas the situational leadership approach assumes that the situation is static and leader should adapt to it, the contingency theory assumes that the leader’s default style is also pretty much fixed– maybe he’s much more task-oriented than people-oriented.

So the trick is to fit the right leader to the situation. Bottom line: effective leadership is contingent on matching the leader’s style to the setting. In the coaching example, it would mean to find and install the right coach, rather than hoping the current coach will adapt his or her style to the situation. “Transactional Leadership” and “Transformational Leadership” are two theories that we can consider together. As the term implies, “Transactional Leadership” means that there’s a reciprocity of behavior between the leader and the follower. People will follow based on the incentives in place, so the leader’s job is to find the right mix of rewards and punishments and then closely monitor what’s going on. The theory of “Transformational Leadership,” by contrast, says that leaders gain buy-in and commitment not as much from the quid pro quo approach as they do from encouraging their followers– caring for them, inspiring them toward a vision.

In short, they get results by proactively transforming the environment and the relationships. Cultivating followership rather than paying for it or punishing non-compliance like the transactional leader does. “Leader-Member Exchange Theory” is a bit like transactional theory because it suggests that leadership is basically about a fair exchange between the leader and the led. But, it goes further to say that the exchange creates an in-group and an out-group with respect to the leader. And that, in turn, affects people’s performance and willingness to stick around. In a way, it’s just like being back in high school– there was the in-crowd and then there were the rest of us. And that can have some dysfunctional consequences. So, the theory suggests leaders may want to address their tendency to alienate people. And then there’s “Servant Leadership Theory, which is kind of a blend between transformational and transactional leadership. Boiled down to its essentials, it says that if a leader makes a priority of identifying and meeting followers’ needs– serving rather than being served– that leader creates an environment of trust and cooperation and reciprocal service…

and ultimately higher performance. It’s been popularized in recent decades by many researchers, but it goes back a lot further than that. Much of Jesus’s influence, for example, was and still is a result of compassion and service and sacrifice. People follow out of love and gratitude rather than out of compulsion or fear. All right, that’s ten of the major theories in leadership and there are important truths in each. The better you know them, the better you’re likely to lead.

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