Leadership Theories and Models

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For many managers and employees who hope to advance to managerial positions, preparing for leadership means studying topics like leadership theories, team-building strategies and social psychology. There are many different ways to be an effective leader and often, an individual deemed an effective leader in one field is not quite as effective in another. But there are certain core principles at play in every leadership role, like the importance of effective communication. Learning how to be an effective leader requires one to understand the principles supporting leadership and management.

Types of Leadership Models and Theories

Social scientists and other types of academics have studied leadership models and theories in earnest since the 19th century. One early type of leadership theory was the trait theory of leadership, which held that certain individuals were suited to leadership positions because they had personality traits like extroversion, courage and self-confidence.

Another early category of theories, the Great Man theories, were similar to the trait theory of leadership in that they were based on the idea that some individuals are simply “born to lead” because of their personality traits. Today, there are many more leadership models and theories, some of which are polar opposites of the Great Man and trait theories of leadership.

Leadership theories can be classified into broad categories that describe the actions used by leaders who subscribe to those theories. Each of these categories, like contingency theories, situational theories, relationship theories and participative theories, characterize leadership models based on how an individual leads his team. Within these categories, specific leadership theories are recognized and described in detail.

Five of the most commonly researched and accepted leadership theories are:

  • Transformational leadership
  • Leader-member exchange
  • Adaptive leadership
  • Strengths-based leadership
  • Servant leadership

Transformational Leadership Theory

In the 1970s, political sociologist James MacGregor Burns identified the transformational leadership theory as a contrast to the transactional model of leadership. While a transactional leader motivates and drives his team based on what he can offer them, MacGregor pointed out, a transformational leader motivates his team to do well by connecting with them personally.

A key component of the transformational leadership theory is the leader’s dedication to the greater good. This could be improving his team’s well-being or serving society in a valuable way, like spearheading a social justice movement. In some cases, this “greater good” is simply measurable success in the workplace, like making it possible for every member of his team to access professional development opportunities.

Leader-Member Exchange Theory

When trying to understand the principles supporting leadership and management, an important theory to consider is the leader-member exchange theory. This theory acknowledges how a leader’s personal biases can influence her team’s success, not just as a whole but each individual member’s personal workplace success.

Basically, the leader-member exchange theory posits that on a workplace team, there are two groups: the “in-group”, or the members whose personalities and values are similar to those of the leader, and the “out-group”, or the members whose personalities and values are quite different from the leader’s. Employees who are part of the in-group connect easily with the leader and because of this, quickly build a rapport that drives the employees to volunteer for additional tasks and work harder for their supervisors. Employees in the out-group, on the other hand, feel alienated and thus are less likely to take on the tasks linked with promotion and raises.

A leader facing this kind of workplace dynamic often finds herself tasked with finding ways to connect with the out-group and encourage them to become part of the in-group. The leader can also find herself in a position to reflect on her own biases and determine whether she has inadvertently created barriers that divide her team and discourage members from voicing opinions that oppose hers.

Adaptive Leadership Theory

The adaptive leadership theory is a relative newcomer to the academic study of leadership models and theories. This theory states that there is a difference between leadership and authority. While authority is granted by one’s position within an organization, leadership is the ability to mobilize and motivate a team. Thus, the adaptive leadership theory states, a leader is an individual who influences his team to take on the adaptive challenges they face at work.

Adaptive challenges, as defined by the adaptive leadership theory, are challenges that do not have apparent solutions. This could be the challenge of attracting more foreign investors to a project or changing a company’s organizational structure to allow each member greater autonomy.

Strengths-Based Leadership Theory

This leadership theory is somewhat similar to the trait theory of leadership. It posits that individuals lean on certain personality strengths to lead their teams. These strengths include:

  • Confidence
  • Strategic thinking
  • Interpersonal skills 
  • Influence over others
  • Team-building skills

The difference between the trait theory of leadership and the strengths-based theory is that the strengths-based theory acknowledges the importance of being able to leverage one’s own strengths, rather than simply recognizing that leaders tend to share certain strengths.

A leader who operates according to the strengths-based theory does not just rely on her own strengths to lead a team; she accurately identifies individual members’ strengths and puts them into positions where they can use their skills most effectively. Part of her role as a leader is helping her team members develop their strengths so they can perform their jobs well, effectively strengthening the team as a whole. Having their competencies recognized is typically very encouraging for individual team members, who are then incentivized to work as a cohesive team.

Servant Leadership Theory

Under this theory, the leader has to serve his team in order to effectively lead them. Servant leaders place their teams’ needs above their own interests and by doing so, grant the teams they lead a substantial amount of power in their leader-team relationships. With the servant leader theory, a leader must first be a servant, then he can be a leader once the people being led have been granted power.

Leadership Styles in the Workplace

Often, a leader studying to understand the principles supporting leadership and management comes across discussions of leadership styles. Leadership styles are not the same as leadership theories, though an individual’s leadership style will determine which theory her style most closely matches. Commonly recognized leadership styles include:

  • Autocratic leadership
  • Delegative leadership
  • Laissez-faire leadership
  • Holistic leadership 

While an autocratic leader gives orders and expects unquestioning compliance from her team, a delegative leader asks team members for their input to help her make decisions for the team. In contrast, a laissez-faire leader leaves team members to make all decisions on their own, while a holistic leader seeks to develop each team member’s total potential through her guidance. Certain leadership styles fit closely with certain leadership theories, like delegative leadership and adaptive leadership. Some broader leadership theory categories, like contingency and situational theories, operate on the concept that no single leadership style is the most effective in every situation.

For example, contingency theories posit effective leaders can read their teams’ needs in various situations and change their leadership styles to fit these needs. Situational theories posit a similar idea, that some workplace scenarios are best handled by a delegative or laissez-faire leader while others require the firmer hand of an authoritarian.

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About the Author

Lindsay Kramer has been a full-time writer since 2014. In that time, she's experienced the ups, downs and crazy twists life tends to take when you're launching, building and leading a small business. As a small business owner, her favorite aspect about writing in this field is helping other small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs become more fluent in the terminology and concepts they face in this role. Previously, she's written on entrepreneurship for 99designs and covered business law topics for law firms.