Overview of Common Leadership Theories

Ok here is a brief overview of several of the most common leadership theories.

The leadership theories covered here include:

Trait theory
Transformational leadership
Situational leadership
Action centred leadership
Authentic leadership
Servant leadership

Origins of Leadership

Management has recent military origins – from root word manus (which means to handle a war horse)

Leadership derives from older Anglo Saxon origins – from root word Laed (which means a path, a journey, or the course of a ship at sea).

Leadership involves:

  • The whole organisation
  • Leaders are defined by those that decide to follow
  • Communicating the expectation
  • Empowerment
  • Sense of direction or vision
  • Developing teamwork
  • Inspiration and motivation
  • Example
  • Encouraging people to “step out”
  • Encouraging people to “get it right”
  • Engaging people’s hearts and minds

    Management suggests hierarchies

  • Managers are appointed

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    Trait theory

    The oldest leadership theories are based on trait theory. Trait theory attempts to identify what personal characteristics leaders exhibit. Fortunately physical characteristics are not predictors of good or bad leaders. Height, weight, age, personal appearance, or physique have not been found to be systematically related to leadership performance.

    Edwin Ghiselli (1963) completed much research in this area and concluded that the following traits were determinants of leadership success.

    Here they are listed in descending order of importance:

    Most important
    1. Supervisory ability
    2. Occupational achievement
    3. Intelligence
    4. Self-actualization
    5. Self-assurance
    6. Decisiveness
    7. Lack of the need for security
    8. Working –class affinity
    9. Initiative
    10. Lack of the need for financial reward
    11. Need for power
    12. Maturity
    Least Important

    Trait leadership theory supposes that a leader is a leader under any circumstances – it’s part of their genetic make up.

    More information on leadership theories

    Transformational Leadership

    More recently there has been much academic and business attention on the collected leadership theories of transformational leadership. This is essentially a type of trait theory. Characteristics of transformational leaders include:

    • Vision
    • Excellent communication skills
    • Ability to inspire trust
    • Ability to make group members feel capable
    • Energy and action orientation
    • Emotional expressiveness and warmth
    • Willingness to take personal risks
    • Use of unconventional strategies
    • Self –promoting personality
    • Propensity to emerge during crises
    • Minimum internal conflict

    When people talk about bold and charismatic leaders they are probably talking about transformational leaders. Much of business literature has been preoccupied with the challenges of change and the need for transformational leaders.

    An example of a transformational leadership approach is James Kouzes and Barry Posner's leadership model developed from extensive surveying over many years of the practices employees like to see in their leaders.

    The notable Kouzes Posner's leadership competencies include:

    Inspire a shared vision

    People are motivated most not by fear or reward, but by ideas that capture their imagination. Note that this is not so much about having a vision, but communicating it so effectively that others take it as their own.

    Model the way

    Modeling means going first, living the behaviors you want others to adopt. This is leading from the front. People will believe not what they hear leaders say but what they see leader consistently do.

    Encourage the heart

    People act best of all when they are passionate about what they are doing. Leaders unleash the enthusiasm of their followers this with stories and passions of their own.

    Challenge the process

    Leaders thrive on and learn from adversity and difficult situations. They are early adopters of innovation.

    Enable others to act

    Encouragement is not enough. People must feel able to act and then they must have the ability to put their ideas into action.

    I have found this to be one of the most useful leadership theories where a transformational leadership model is appropriate you can purchase their excellent leadership Challenge guide in most good book stores or search for it in our Amazon store here.

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    Situational Leadership

    Another of the leadership theories is situational or, as it is sometimes called, transactional leadership suggests that certain contexts demand certain kinds of leadership. It suggests that a leader should be flexible enough with his or her behaviours to generate a range of leadership styles to suit the particular situation and peson. Hersey and Blanchard were the proponents of a Situational Leadership theory that has been very popular with businesses for a number of years.

    Situational leadership is a very useful approach and maintains that leadership skills can be taught and improved with practice.

    The difference between situational (transactional) and transformational leadership may primarily be the mechanism used to motivate followers. Situational leadership attempts to motivate by playing on the follower’s immediate self-interests whereas transformational leadership involves an appeal to the followers to transcend immediate self-interest for the sake of some greater cause and thus satisfy higher level needs.

    Situational leadership is task specific – we are interested in our followers’ ability to perform certain tasks. The journey that we all travel in moving from beginner to expert is called our development level. As a situational leader we are interested in two things: (1) enabling our followers to perform to the best of their ability; (2) helping them get better.

    Hersey and Blanchard have arrived at four styles of different combinations of these two basic leadership behaviours that a leader can use when trying to influence someone else. These leadership styles are:

    Style 1: Directing

    The leader provides specific instructions and closely supervises task accomplishment.

    Style 2: Coaching

    The leader continues to direct and closely supervise task accomplishment, but also explains decisions, solicits suggestions, and supports progress.

    Style 3: Supporting

    The leader facilitates and supports subordinates' efforts toward task accomplishment and shares responsibility for decision-making with them.

    Style 4: Delegating

    The leader turns over responsibility for decision-making and problem-solving to subordinates.

    The backbone of the theory is that there is no "best" leadership style as it depends on a given situation. (Hence being titled situational leadership). This means that a participative management style might not be the best style given a certain situation. Flexibility in selecting and applying the correct style is therefore a key skill.

    Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model

    John Adair has a long pedigree in the world of leadership.

    According to Adair's explanation an action-centred leader must:
    • direct the job to be done (task structuring)
    • support and review the individual people doing it
    • co-ordinate and foster the work team as a whole

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    • define the task
    • make the plan
    • allocate work and resources
    • control quality and rate of work
    • check performance against plan
    • adjust the plan


    • maintain discipline
    • build team spirit
    • encourage, motivate, give a sense of purpose
    • appoint sub-leaders
    • ensure communication within group
    • develop the group


    • attend to personal problems
    • praise individuals
    • give status
    • recognise and use individual abilities
    • develop the individual

    The effective leader/manager carries out the functions and exhibits the behaviours depicted by the three circles. As the situation chnages or varies the leader has to respond differently.

    Hence imagine that the various circles may be bigger or smaller as the situation varies i.e. the leader will give more or less emphasis to the functionally-oriented behaviours according to what the actual situation involves. The challenge for the leader is to manage all sectors of the diagram

    Tip I have found this to be a great thought starter by getting your leaders to record where they are currently focusing their attention and then asking how they feel about that?

    Authentic Leadership

    The basis of Authentic Leadership theory can be found in positive psychology which argues that progress is best achieved by focussing on and building people’s strengths rather than learning interventions that focus on what is wrong with people and their weaknesses. Authentic Leadership aims to incorporate the leadership theories of positive leadership, transformational leadership and moral /ethical leadership.

    Authentic leaders do not fake their leadership (they do not pretend to be leaders simply because they are in a management position)Authentic leaders lead from personal conviction rather than a desire for status or reward Authentic leaders are originals not copies Authentic leaders’ actions are based on their values

    Where standards, integrity and accountability are being questioned, the theory of Authentic Leadership has emerged as a relevant and timely response.

    The components of authentic leadership are characterised as follows:

  • Self awareness Developing an understanding and sense of self that provides a firm anchor for decisions and actions
  • Balanced information processing Unbiased collection and interpretation of positive and negative self-related information
  • Moral and ethical perspective Behaviour guided by core values, beliefs, thoughts and feelings rather than outside pressures and personalities
  • Relational transparency High levels of openness, self-disclosure and trust in relationships

    more on theories of leadership here.

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    Servant Leadership

    The last of our leadership theories is Servant Leadership. The notion of “Servant Leadership” emphasises the leaders’ duty to serve his/her followers - leadership thus arises out of a desire to serve rather than a desire to lead

    Characteristics of Servant Leaders are as follows:

    “Servant-Leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. Servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. Servant-leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.”
    Taken from the Center for Servant Leadership web site, April 2003.

    The concept is very much that the servant leaders job is to make sure that the team has all the resources and processes and training it needs together with a compelling vision. The servant leader provides a resources that the team can tap into and may have some delegated duties from the team and the organisation like performance management and coaching. The Servant leader is not bound by status and their ego and exists to help the team achieve the greater good.

    The emphasis on serving a higher purpose has made this model popular within the Church and other religious institutions.

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