Why do some leaders inspire and influence while others don't? It's a question that's been puzzling researchers for decades. Over the years, a number of leadership theories have emerged to explain what leadership is, how it works and what it should aspire to be. These theories range from the idea of a single "Great Man" whose charisma influences others to follow to the observation that leadership styles must adapt to the context and situation.
There are four main leadership and management theories: trait theories, behavioral theories, situational theories and influence theories.
The Great Man theory sees leadership as a heroic act of the individual. In other words, there's something special about a person's unique combination of qualities, personality traits and personal abilities that sets her up as a great leader and distinguishes her from all others.
Or to put it another way, leaders are born and not created.
The Great Man theory is compelling in its simplicity. For a long time, businesses have been turning toward individuals who possess the ability to inspire people toward a common goal, and to motivate and support them on the way to achieving this goal. People who exhibit these traits may find themselves in pole position in the leadership race, regardless of their other skills and limitations.
The Great Man theory assumes that a certain set of personality traits operate, either individually or in combination, to make a person a "great man." The problem is, researchers have not managed to pin down a universal set of characteristics that are related to successful leadership.
For sure, there are some personality traits that help leaders to lead. Researchers have found that reliability, sociability, initiative and self-confidence are qualities that characterize some (though by no means all) leaders. Over the years, scientists have attempted to add many other attributes to the list – creativity, extroversion and conscientiousness to name a few. But overall, they have failed to show a repeated pattern of traits that guarantee success as a leader.
Lack of scientific support is not the only problem associated with trait-based theories. Other criticisms associated with this approach include:
- The Great Man theory considers character traits exclusively and does not consider the behavior of the individual.
- It does not take into account the individual's work environment and his or her particular situation, which greatly affects leadership potential.
- It tends to underestimate how different personality characteristics are required to lead in different situations. For example, the leader of a community-based nonprofit organization may require a different set of personal qualities from the leader of a multinational, profit-driven brand.
The dream of the Great Man theory to find universal characteristics of leadership remains out of reach, and is still controversial in the scientific community.
Behavioral types of leadership theories – of which there are many – focus on how leaders behave in the workplace. For example, do they bark instructions at the workforce and expect their orders to be followed? Or do they collaborate with their teams in decision-making?
Behavioral theory is the opposite of the Good Man theory because it believes that good leaders can be made, and are not simply born.
Of all the behavioral models of leadership that have been developed over the years, the work of Kurt Lewin is the most enduring. Lewin argued there were three types of leaders: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. This approach to leadership sometimes goes by the name of Lewin Theory.
Autocratic leaders make decisions as dictators without consulting their teams. If you think of a high-ranking army official barking orders for the rank-and-file soldiers to follow, you'll have a good picture of the autocratic style of leadership.
Decision-making is fast with this style of leadership, so it's useful for short-duration projects with a very tight deadline where the business needs to make decisions quickly. Communication is only one-way, however, which may frustrate workers and lead to dependency as people rely on the boss to make all the decisions.
Democratic or participative leadership seeks the input of the team before making a decision, so responsibility for the decision and its outcome is shared. It's a useful style of leadership in businesses that practice continuous process improvement, where it's necessary to garner feedback from all people involved in the process to figure out what is working and what isn't.
Democratic leadership is associated with a good working environment for employees since people are encouraged to share their ideas and own of the decisions the business is making. Decision-making can be slow, however, and it allows a weak leader to hide between the collective efforts of the team.
Laissez-faire is French for "let people do as they choose." As the name implies, these leaders do not interfere but allow employees to just get on with their jobs in whatever way they choose. This style of leadership works well when the team is highly motivated and capable of delivering excellent work without the need for close supervision.
In the right environment, allowing employees to self-direct can provide them with the autonomy they need to do their best work, and it's certainly less work for the leader. Employees can feel stressed if they are not properly supported, however, and there's a risk that no one will be willing to step up and take the blame if things go wrong.
Situational leadership is not so much a style of leadership as a recognition that the most effective leaders change their behaviors depending on the situation. For example, a leader who is brought in to manage a crisis situation may need to steer the ship with an autocratic hand, whereas a leader who is in charge of a team of experts may empower the team to brainstorm, collaborate and manage their own decision-making.
Of all the situational leadership styles and theories, perhaps the best known is the Hersey and Blanchard model. According to these two theorists, situational leaders:
- Focus on followers rather than the wider workplace environment.
- Change their behavior according to the needs of followers.
- Adapt and progress as leaders in response to the demands of followers.
The Hersey-Blanchard model is more than just a theory. It also serves as a practical tool for assessing the maturity level of followers, and thus the style of leadership that the situational leader should adopt. "Followers" in this context means a group of employees who share similar levels of competence (ability) and commitment (willingness to perform the job).
Logically, the four groups of employees are:
Low maturity (low competence/ low commitment)
These employees are unwilling and unable to perform work autonomously and need very clear guidance on tasks. The appropriate leadership style is telling: instructive, directive and autocratic.
Low-medium maturity (low competence/ high commitment)
These employees are willing but potentially unable to perform tasks autonomously. The appropriate leadership style is selling: persuasive, encouraging and incentivizing.
Average maturity (high competence/ low commitment)
These employees are capable but unwilling to perform tasks autonomously. The appropriate leadership style is participating: involved, team-based and consultative.
High maturity (high competence/ high commitment)
These employees are able and willing to perform tasks autonomously. The appropriate leadership style is delegating: trusting, empowering and laissez-faire.
The final theory of leadership has attracted a lot of interest in recent years. This is the transformational model. It is based around the idea that a leader's role is to transform the organization, in the sense of bringing new ways of looking at the organization, and more specifically a vision of what it could and should be. Transformational leadership focuses on the future of the business and the changes needed to improve it.
According to James MacGregor Burns, who developed the theory of transformational leaders in the context of political leadership, there are two types of leaders: transactional and transformational.
Transactional leaders use the carrot and stick approach to influence their followers – they provide incentives and withhold rewards, and gain compliance by what they offer in exchange. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, focus on motivating their followers to support each other and the business as a whole. Employees respond with feelings of loyalty, admiration and trust for the leader and are willing to work hard for the person they respect.
While the transformational leadership theory itself is straightforward, a more complicated question is, "What is the source of the transformational leader's power?" Another scholar, Bernard Bass, expanded the work of Burns by exploring the psychology that underpins transformational leadership. Bass theorized that transformational leaders demonstrate four behaviors:
Idealized influence represents the personal conviction a transformational leader brings to the table – his willingness to "practice what he preaches." This level of authenticity resonates with employees and inspires them to see the leader as a role model. From this solid foundation, the inspirational leader can start to change behaviors through relationships that are based on trust and respect. Employees respect who the leader is as a person, and begin to follow his example.
A leader cannot rely on trust and respect alone to transform behaviors. Rather, he must consistently promote his vision and provide clarity on what is required of employees, and what their role is within the big-picture strategy. The idea is to motivate employees to be the best person they can possibly be, and to use those skills for the benefit of the organization.
A big part of transformational leadership is to encourage employees to use their own skills and creativity to solve problems and get things done. Team members are encouraged to share ideas, discuss ways to solve problems and be in charge of their own decisions. This is similar to the Hersey-Blanchard delegating style of leadership.
It's easy to think of transformational leadership as a collaborative or democratic style of leadership, but in fact it emphasizes the role of personal contributions and posits that individual success should be recognized and rewarded. Employees have their own personal needs and motivations for turning up to work each day, and leaders should accept these different realities. In other words, one size of leadership does not fit all.
Under this framework, education and training are key. Upskilling employees based on their own areas of interest provides further motivation for each employee to bring his best self to the job, which ultimately helps the organization to achieve its goals.
Not every leadership theory will be right for every organization, and not every employee will respond to the same type of leader. It seems there is no single "correct" style – sometimes a leader will need to roll up his sleeves and work prescriptively alongside employees while at other times, he can be more hands-off in his approach. Ultimately, leadership theories can help you develop the skills and understanding to make you a better leader. But it could require some flexibility, and trial and error, to figure out the best approach for your business.