Leadership Theories

Types of leadership theories go way back when people were led by those in power.  Kings would rule over the land and decide the fate of their kingdoms.  When a conflict arose, the ultimate leader would be the king or ruler. 

Conflict or war in the early years, brought out leadership abilities of those that took control of the situation.  Without a leader, things would have fallen apart.

History shows there are good leaders and bad leaders.  But each leader kept things together whether it was for the good of the people or for themselves. 

At that time, no one looked at qualities of leadership, people just looked for someone to lead.

Since then, leadership has come a long way.  The definition of leadership is where the leader is someone that has influence over others.  It can be confusing because there are managers and leaders.  Not all managers are leaders and not all leaders are managers.

Since the 20th century, several theories have developed.  I've described the main theories below.

Trait Leadership Theories

Leadership Theories

Trait theories are based on qualities of an individual person.  It is believed that people are born with certain traits or characteristics that will allow them to lead.  There have been studies of what people think are the best leadership traits that an individual needs to lead.  Some of the traits or characteristics are:


  • Intelligence

  • Accepts responsibility easily

  • Understands the needs of followers

  • Able to motivate people

  • Trustworthy

  • Good decision maker

  • Self confident

  • Assertive

  • Flexible

  • Need for power


The trait leadership theories assumes there are certain traits that all leaders need to have whether in a war, a company or in a classroom.  Also, one situation might require a leader to have a group of traits that might differ from another situation. 


Behavioral Leadership Theories

Behavioral theories looked at how leaders behaved which developed into different leadership styles. In essence, they define leadership as learned, not something you're born with.   There are four styles:


  • Focus on the work - where leaders organize people to get the job done in the most efficient manner.


  • Focus on the people - where leaders make sure the workers needs are met, they are happier and will put more effort into getting the work done.


  • Direct leader - where the leader makes all the decisions for others and expects them to follow.


  • Participative leader - where the leader gets the input from others to make a decision to benefit everyone as a whole.


With behavioral theories, a leader can't just choose one style and use it.  The type of work, environment and the people all determine which style can be used.  Not every leader can move from one style to another based upon circumstances.


Situational Leadership Theories

Situational theories lean towards the different styles of leadership.  The type of leadership needed changes from situation to situation.  Those leaders that could adapt to the different situations were the most sought after people. 

Just having different styles of leadership isn't enough.  That person must be able to apply the leadership style to the various situations where they can take control and influence the people.

By looking at Hersey and Blanchard's leadership styles you can see that situational leadership follows the same styles as the behavioral theories.


  • High Task, Low Relationship - This approach is good for menial jobs and tasks that need to be completed quickly.  The leader tells the workers what needs to be done and how it is to be done.


  • High Task, High Relationship -  This approach has the leader give most of the direction, but allows the workers to contribute.  This is good for those just learning the task, such as coaching sports teams, new hires at a firm, etc.


  • High Relationship, Low Task -  This approach shares the decision making between the leader and the workers.  Workers are able but unsure of what needs to be done. 


  • Low Relationship, Low Task - This approach has the leader identify the problem and passes responsibility on to the workers to get the job done.  Many companies run on this model, where the CEO passes the responsibility onto the managers.


Some of the issues with this model are cultures, beliefs, how people would perform the work and the relationships between leaders and the workers.   Other issues depend on whether the leader is male or female.  In general, women focus more on relationships and men focus more on tasks.


Management Leadership Theories

Management theories are also known as transactional theories.  It follows a system of reward and punishment for the work performed by subordinates.    If people are successful, they are rewarded with bonuses, prizes, etc.  Many businesses use this type of leadership.


Relationship Leadership Theories

Relationship theories are also know as transformational theories.  This theory is based on a relationship between the leader and the follower. 

The leader wants to motivate everyone to work for the group, not just for themselves.  The leader also strives for each individual to reach his or her potential.  In the end, the whole group or organization will benefit from everyone's effort.

As you can see, there have been many leadership theories over time.  There is no right or wrong way to lead.  Many people use a few aspects of more than one theory when leading others.  Throughout your life, you will come across many leadership styles.

Everyone still looks to the leaders for problem solving, they have special traits and characteristics and they help point followers in the right direction.  Some people seem to be natural born leaders and others can learn to be a leader.

I lean towards the situational leadership theories, because for some people a conflict or some other situation will kick them in gear and they take control of things when there seems to be no one leading.



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