An Introduction to the Most Influential Leadership Theories

introduction to leadership theory
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Tools, models and approaches to support your leadership development

Here is a short introduction to some of the most important leadership theories, trends, and models. These can all be instructive in understanding your own leadership style, broadening your expertise, and giving you tools to improve as a manager.

Great-man theory

Great Man theory (1840) is one of the oldest leadership theories. It is the idea that true leaders – or heroes – are born with the innate ability to shape history. Thomas Carlyle was a historian, and he came up with the theory based on the examples of key historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte.

However, this premise – that leaders are born not made – has largely been refuted. The main importance of this theory is that it reveals how we have traditionally seen leaders. Carlyle’s also work gave impetus to the study of leadership and the development of further leadership theories.

Control and domination, power, and influence

Great Man theory was linked to the idea of power and that leaders would naturally dominate others by the strength of their personality. This school of leadership theory is summed up in Moore’s definition of leadership from 1927:

“The ability to impress the will of the leader on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty and cooperation.” 

B.V. Moore at the May conference on leadership (1927)

The point to note here is that there is no reference to the responsibility a leader has for their followers or to any moral code. It took the extreme abuses of power, by the likes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin in the first half of the twentieth century, for these ideas of leadership to be properly challenged. 

Leadership traits and skills

Academics also started to identify the traits of leaders, to see what common characteristics made a good leader. In the early iterations of the theory, these traits were seen as inherited and linked to the idea of the Great Man, the charismatic male hero, who was tall and good-looking (Galton, 1869). 

This school of thinking evolved into identifying more positive traits such as integrity, moral courage, and humility. Importantly there was also a shift towards characteristics that could be developed. As the emphasis moved from innate to acquired characteristics, the focus moved to identify leadership skills and behaviours that could be learned, such as communication, strategic thinking and decision-making.

Action-centred leadership

John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership model (1979) was built on the premise that leadership skills and behaviours could be taught and adopted.

The simple idea behind Action-Centred Leadership is the need to balance the three core management priorities of taskteam and individual. A good leader must continuously seek to achieve the task, build the team, and support the development of each individual.

Transactional and transformational leadership theories

James MacGregor Burns took the ideas of influence and behaviour in another direction when he defined the difference between Transactional and Transformational leadership (1978).

Transactional leadership is management using a carrot and stick approach. This functional style relies on basic human needs such as income and job security. These elements are related to the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Transformational leadership goes beyond transactional leadership. This type of leader seeks to inspire people with a compelling vision, and lead them to self-actualisation, at the top of the Maslow pyramid. Bernard Bass (1985) built on the work of Burns and defined the key behaviours of the transformational leader as being:

  • a positive role model,
  • providing encouragement and 
  • supporting followers to fulfil their potential.

Situational leadership theory (flexible leadership)

The Situational leadership model, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, (1985) took leadership theory in another slightly different direction. Their model is about having a flexible approach. It demonstrates how a leader can adapt their management style depending upon the experience of the team and individuals they are working with, while also considering the environment and circumstances they find themselves in. The leader chooses their approach – either delegatingsupportingcoaching, or directing – depending upon the situation.

Values-based leadership

Values-based leadership developed in response to various moral failings of prominent leaders. This school of leadership – related to trait theory – encompasses both servant leadership and authentic leadership models.

The central idea is that the values-based leader has a strong moral compass and leads according to their personal values and the shared values of their organisation or community. This model stresses the importance of being a good leader, not just a charismatic one, and the ability to make the right – or ethical decisions – not just effective, or bold choices.

Servant leadership theory

The idea of ‘the servant as leader’ was developed by Robert Greenleaf (1977). This model of servant leadership is primarily about motivation. The servant-leader wants to serve others and society by raising up new leaders and helping people move towards a positive vision of the future. They are not seeking power for themselves, instead, servant leaders share power and empower others. 

Toxic or bad leaders

At the other end of the scale, academics also started to identify the opposite of values-based or good leaders. Marcia Lynn Whicker popularised the term ‘toxic leader’ (1996) and various models have been developed to identify such bad leadership. 

For example, Barbara Kellerman’s study (2004) identified seven types of bad leaders. These are:

  • Incompetent 
  • Rigid 
  • Intemperate
  • Callous 
  • Corrupt 
  • Insular 
  • Evil

Authentic leadership theory

The term authentic leadership was first popularised by leadership practitioner Bill George (2003). He wrote a book, by the same name, in response to failures of senior corporate management, such as the fraudulent behaviour that led to the fall of the energy giant Enron (2001). George advocated for leaders of “purpose, values and integrity” rather than those motivated by greed and power.

Georges’s academic colleagues, Bruce Avolio and William Gardner, then developed models around this concept identifying the key behaviours or traits of an authentic leader. These included: 

  • Self-awareness and self-regulation
  • Balanced processing of information
  • Relational transparency
  • Strong sense of morality

Why leadership theory is important

So that is a very quick introduction to some of the key leadership schools, theories, and models.

Theory can be dry but understanding these models is important for the following reasons:

  • They give us language and concepts that help us reflect on our leadership experience and the conduct of others. 
  • They give us tools to use in our leadership practice 
  • They act as signposts to ways we can develop and grow as leaders

And you can start now. Take a few moments to reflect. Which of the leadership theories above most intrigues you? What does this model reveal about your own leadership? Which tool could you apply in the interactions you have today?

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