Major Theories of Leadership

What makes good leaders? How did the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and many more become such exceptional leaders? This is a question that many leadership scholars have for years tried to unravel.

In their such for answers these scholars, who have been fascinated with the leadership capabilities of these men and women, have developed several leadership theories that seek to explain how they became excellent leaders. Before we delve into the leadership theories let us define leadership. Leadership is the ability by an individual to influence others to achieve a certain goal. This can be employees, fellow countrymen, etc.

One of the first theories was the Great Man Theory which says great leaders are born and not made. The term “someone is a born leader” originated from this theory. According to it great leaders are those destined by birth to lead. The theory which was defined in the 1800s also assumed that only men can be leaders hence the name Great Man theory. The Great Man theories evolved to the Trait theories. The Trait theories assume that people are born with or inherit certain qualities that make them better leaders. Traits like high self-esteem, courage, creativity are characteristics that great leaders have or are shared by them. Using the Traits theory Margaret Thatcher who served as British Prime Minister was described as iron-willed, decisive, determined and a confident person, traits that made her one of UK’s best leaders ever.

  • Situational Theories

In Situation Theories leaders determine the way to lead according to the circumstances they are facing. For example, if a situation arises where the leader is the most skilled person to handle it he may dictate actions to be taken hence an authoritarian style of leadership takes form. However, if a situation occurs where the leader is not knowledgeable about the issue he may turn to his followers for the best course of action, a democratic style is hence adopted.

Here they are two groups the leader works with. They are the In-group and the Out-group members. The In-group members work well with the leader and are compatible with him. The leader has a special relationship with this small group and they get more attention, trust from him and even have informal interaction. This is the group the leader turns to in order to succeed. The Out-group members have clashing personalities with the leader have dissenting opinions and are not compatible with the leader. They spend little time with the leader and interaction is mostly formal. In this theory the In-group members are more likely to take on extra work which in turn sees them get promotions, the Out-group members are likely to leave.

This theory states that for it to be effected the leadership must be charismatic. The charisma is necessary because the leader has to inspire his followers to let go of self-interests and work for the betterment of their organisation. Transformational leaders inspire followers to have new outlooks to old problems. Four factors are found to be present in transformation leaders

  • Idealized influence/charisma: Transformational leaders have a natural ability to get others on board with the vision they set out to achieve
  • Inspirational motivation-this leaders are good at communicating and they use words to inspire people to action and encourage them when things get tough.
  • Intellectual stimulation– transformation leaders advocate for change in the way followers think. The old thing should be done away with and followers should innovate, think more deeply and challenge assumptions.
  • Individualized concern: Finally, transformational leaders are interested in individual needs and concerns even as they focus on the common good.

Servant Leadership is one of the more recent leadership theories. The theory states that a leader shall put the needs of his followers before his own. A leader’s self-interests take a back seat and he works tirelessly to achieve the goals that will be of benefit to others. Mandela is a great example of servant leadership. He sacrificed his freedom for South African to reject apartheid. This theory says to be a servant leader one must earn trust and influence by among others having empathy, being a good listener, having persuasion skills, stewardship, foresight etc.

The above list of leadership theories is not conclusive. Leadership Theories have been developed for many years past and new theories are being developed due to rapidly changing technologies, increased globalization, and changing workplace demography. Knowing the theories helps you understand why some teams and leaders excel and others don’t. One take home should be that the leadership theories are there to be tested and you should choose to work with what works best for you. Going through each theory you can see that they somehow can be used interchangeably so you should not be afraid to try them together to offer great leadership.

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