Definition of Leadership Theories

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Almost anyone can be called upon to take on a leadership role, but some make better leaders than others. Not so long ago, leadership was considered a natural trait, something people were born with. However, the study of leadership has led to more advanced theories on this subject and has led society to recognize different types of leadership characteristics. Most of these characteristics and behaviors you can adopt and practice, and from these theories, you can learn which leadership styles are best used in different circumstances.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Leadership theory definition: Any school of thought that attempts to explain what makes someone a leader. Most leadership theories examine the behavior and characteristics that lead to effective leadership, which can be used by others to increase their own leadership abilities.

5 Main Leadership Theories

Anyone can have their own opinions and theories about leadership, but the theories that are most recognized and respected come from years of study and research. Leadership theories today are a social science and must be open to discussion, analysis and testing. Early theories, like the Great Man Theory and Trait Theory, are no longer relied upon as being scientific. They are only important and studied today because they laid the groundwork for more modern research.

Fortunately for aspiring leaders, including managers and business owners, modern theories like the Contingency Theory, Situational Theory and Behavioral Theory give insight into when different types of leadership are appropriate or inappropriate and discuss the behavior of leaders that can be learned and adopted.

The Great Man Theory

This was one of the earliest theories attempting to explain leadership, which dominated the 19th century. It asserted that great leaders are rare and that they were essentially born, or made by God this way. Because its premise can't be refuted, it is not a valid scientific theory.

Trait Theory

The Trait Theory of leadership is based on the traits found in different leaders. By comparing the traits other known leaders had, potential leaders could be analyzed to determine how effective they may be. Physical attributes are measured, including appearance, height and weight, as well as age, education and family background. Intelligence, judgment and decisiveness are also taken into account.

Contingency Theory

This leadership theory maintains that different leadership styles can be applied to different situations and that good leadership uses a combination of different variables. The best leaders, maintain researchers Hodgson and White, find a balance between their behaviors, the context of the situation and the needs of their followers.

Situational Theory

Similar to the Contingency Theory, this theory maintains that leadership depends on any given situation. Great leaders are able to adapt themselves to the context of the situation after assessing variables like the type of task required of them and the nature of their followers. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard maintain that an important factor in leadership is the maturity of the followers, which they classify in four degrees.

  1. Followers lack motivation or skills to perform necessary tasks.
  2. Followers have the ability, but lack the ambition to perform necessary tasks.
  3. Followers have the necessary skills and capacity to perform tasks, but do not want to take accountability.
  4. Followers have both the skills and motivation to complete their tasks.

Behavioral Theory

Instead of dwelling on traits and characteristics, Behavioral Theory emphasizes the behaviors and actions of leaders. Leadership consists of three primary skills that can be learned: technical, human and conceptual skills.

  • Technical skills are a leader's knowledge of a process or technique.
  • Human skills are those required to interact with other people.
  • Conceptual skills are those that allow the leader to have a vision for running an organization or society.

Leadership Theories and Styles

The development of leadership theories over the past century has brought us a greater understanding of what makes a good leader. It has also given people the tools they need to develop their own leadership abilities. Just as importantly, the study of leadership has led researchers to discover distinct styles of leadership.

Research stemming from Situational and Behavioral Leadership theories has especially helped to identify specific types of leadership styles. Rather than believing that leadership is something inherent, managers can adopt different styles as needed in different situations.

Types of Management Leadership Styles

Depending on who you ask, you may find there are five, six, 10 or more different leadership styles that can be used in an organization. Sometimes, leadership experts may use different names for different styles or include two different styles in the same category, such as the autocratic and commanding leadership styles. Here is a summary of 10 common styles:

  1. Visionary leadership is best suited for when a new idea or direction is required. The leader can inspire employees with a powerful vision of the future, uniting them so they can work together towards achieving that vision.

  2. Coaching leadership works on employee strengths to develop experience and skills in their field. The coaching leader requires a good understanding of each employee's strengths and weaknesses as well as their motivations so she can guide them towards success. This can be an ideal model for small businesses with a few key employees.

  3. Affiliative leaders nurture employee morale to bring cohesion to the workplace. While each employee is held accountable, the focus is on the team as a whole. It is a good model for companies that need to rebuild or when working relationships have been damaged.

  4. Democratic leaders solicit employee opinions to build a consensus before deciding on a direction for the organization. Employees are more likely to support a new plan that they contributed to. A time-consuming approach, this style is useful for long-term planning, but is not the best approach for business emergencies. 

  5. Pacesetting leadership involves setting performance standards and then holding employees accountable for meeting those standards. Quantitative metrics are often involved but all factors affecting performance should be considered. Note that if this style is overused, it can lower morale and actually decrease performance.

  6. Autocratic leaders use the traditional boss-worker approach to management, where managers make the decisions and employees follow orders. This can make companies very efficient when complex processes are involved or those requiring rigid safety standards. If overused, employees can quickly become dissatisfied.

  7. Commanding leaders take the autocratic style one step further, running their companies like military units. Subordinates provide no input to management regarding decisions. While this can be exceptionally efficient in times of crisis, it seldom works for long in day-to-day business situations.

  8. Laissez-faire leadership is the opposite of the autocratic style. The manager empowers employees but gives them few rules to follow with little oversight or direction. Employees are left to solve problems on their own. This can be a rewarding experience for employees but typically requires highly skilled and motivated teams.

  9. Bureaucratic leadership relies on hierarchies and job titles to determine responsibilities and rules within a company. While it is efficient, employees at the bottom are usually below several layers of management and have difficulty getting their voices heard. 

  10. Servant leadership focuses on the needs of employees, seeing them as the organization's most important resources and often treating them as clients. This can be a good style in a highly productive sales department, but often works best when used in conjunction with more authoritative styles.

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About the Author

A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.