Leadership is a complex, multifaceted and much-studied concept. As a result, the last century has seen the development of a number of different leadership theories, which we have grouped into six categories. Each school of thought provides some illumination of this broad topic. While there is no one “correct theory”, and no single theory or set of theories has captured the full intricacies of leadership, understanding them collectively can provide a greater perspective of what it means to lead well.
The Trait Theory of Leadership
One of the earliest leadership theories emerged from research on what personal traits caused some to move into and become successful in leadership roles while others did not. Extensive research into these leadership traits began in the 1940s, and continues today.
The initial aim of trait theory was perhaps overly ambitious. Researchers hoped to find a single list of traits that were essential to becoming an effective leader. They predicted that anyone who lacked just one of these traits would either not rise into a managerial role, or would be ineffective if they did so. While researchers failed to find such a “golden list”, trait theory has made two important contributions to our understanding of leadership. First, deeply ingrained traits impact our habitual leadership methods in ways that can help or hinder our effectiveness. Second, there do happen to be a few traits that can make it far more likely that someone will lead well.
Behavioral Theories of Leadership
Behavioral theories of leadership emerged when researchers started to look beyond the personal traits of leadership and started to focus more on the methods of effective leaders. This led researchers to identify a number of leadership styles, such as “people-focused” and “results-focused”. These theories dominated leadership research from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. In fact, they continue to have considerable influence and researchers are still coming up with new styles today.
The two major contributions of the behavioral theories of leadership were:
- The idea that effective leadership was the result of what a leader did, not merely aspects of who they were (meaning that despite not being a “born” leader, one could still become an effective leader through training and development)
- Ever-increasing insight into what effective leaders do
The two key criticisms of this new behavioral approach were that it:
- Dismissed and sought to replace, rather than augment, trait theory (i.e., nature vs. nurture, rather than nature and nurture)
- Maintained a view that there was one universal, correct way to lead, regardless of the situation
Situational Theories of Leadership
In the mid 1960s, conventional wisdom moved away from the concept of a single leadership method that would serve all situations and began to think of effective leadership as a broad understanding of different styles of leadership, each suited to a particular set of circumstances. The idea had popular appeal and a number of specific theories emerged. Some of these maintained the earlier view that a leader was “wired a certain way” and hence was naturally suited to leading in some situations and not others. Other theories took a more “behavioral view”, proposing that leaders could learn different ways of leading and use the correct approach for the situation at hand.
The major contribution of situational theory is the acknowledgement that context matters and that the quest to find one best way to lead (or one set of universally applicable personal traits) is therefore unrealistic and unachievable.
The impact of situational theory has been hindered by its complexity. It seems that busy managers prefer quick and easy answers. This has unfortunately caused practicing managers to embrace:
- More user-friendly, popularized models that are not based on solid research or evidence
- An “anything goes” approach that uses context to justify and mask an “I’ll do it my way” attitude
Skill-Based Theories of Leadership
Like style-based behavioral theories, skill-based theories of leadership explore and describe what effective leaders do, rather than focusing on the personal traits of the leaders themselves. However, unlike their style-based cousins, skill-based leadership theories contain long lists of specific skills, typically grouped under a small number of headings.
One of the earliest skill-based models to emerge was developed by Robert Katz in 1974. However, it was the sea of company-specific leadership frameworks popular in the 1990s and early 2000s that brought skill-based leadership theory to the fore.
The key contribution of skill-based theories was the development of specific techniques that any leader can learn and use.
However, skill-based theories have been criticized for:
- Perpetuating the view that there is only one correct way to lead
- Being too long and cumbersome, yet still failing to capture the many subtle complexities of a leader’s role
Read more about Skill Based Theories of Leadership
Visionary Leadership Theories
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, leadership became virtually synonymous with marshalling people behind a compelling vision of a better future. Visionary leadership theories shifted the focus away from routine tasks and interactions toward what was required to inspire, unite and mobilize the masses. Well-known visionary leadership theories include the charismatic and the transformational models.
The two key criticisms of visionary leadership theories were that they:
- Promoted a return to the “great man” view of leadership and the associated focus on the special personal traits that define such leaders
- Downplayed the importance of the less appealing, more mundane aspects of a leader’s role
Both of these assertions are disputed by advocates of visionary leadership theories.
Read more about Visionary Leadership Theories
Alternate Leadership Theories
Over the years, there have been a number of leadership theories that have failed to fit neatly into one of the categories described above. These include servant leadership, leadership as meaning-making, authentic leadership and leadership as a collective.
Merely for convenience, we have grouped such theories under the heading of alternate leadership theories.
- ↑ Katz, R. (1974). Skills of An Effective Administrator, Harvard Business Review, September