What makes a great leader? Are they born or made, or do they simply adapt to meet the occasion?

What makes a great leader is a question that has occupied scholars and philosophers through the ages. It's led to countless behavioral studies in search of the qualities and circumstances that give rise to impactful leadership.

Is it a list of specific personality traits that make people innately prepared to be leaders? Do circumstances of the moment dictate what types of people can best lead the team?

As the interest in leadership psychology has intensified, a variety of leadership theories have emerged to explain how certain people become great leaders and why some leadership styles are effective.

What is a leadership theory?

Leadership theories are concepts that seek to explain successful leadership. To that end, there are analytical leadership theories and leadership approach theories. 

Analytical leadership theories are hypotheses of why certain types of people become leaders. These theories focus on the traits, characteristics, and behaviors of successful leaders and the circumstances that have produced them. 

Leadership approach theories put forth proposals of which leadership approach will lead to the most success. They advocate for leaders to emphasize different aspects of management, such as team-building or rewards-based motivation, as ways of achieving team success.

What are the 6 major theories of leadership?

Analytical leadership theories

1. "Great Man" Theory or Trait Theory

The Great Man Theory of leadership purports that great leaders are born, not made. It proposes that there are those who are simply born with the personality traits and attributes that set them apart and predispose them to great leadership skills. Similar to the trait theory, it suggests that these traits are responsible for individuals assuming positions of power.

The theory is the result of studies of great leaders throughout history, mapping both their personality and physical traits. Some of the natural qualities of a successful leader that have been identified are:

  • Charisma

  • Drive to achieve

  • Desire to lead

  • Integrity

  • Confidence

  • Intellect

  • Political skills

  • Business knowledge 

  • Emotional Maturity

Strong leaders, it claims, fill the "hero mold," possessing courage and the ability to influence the masses.

It maintains that these traits can be observed in leaders across time, cultures, and locations. As such, all great leaders will share these characteristics regardless of when and where they lived or what place in history they held.

The theory does allow that leadership is still more art than science. Even if there are certain inborn qualities that make one a good leader, these natural talents must be developed and the individual must learn to skillfully apply leadership techniques.

The pushback on the theory is that a great deal of emphasis is placed on physical characteristics, like height and appearance, in its description of “great men.” Many of the traits cited are typically masculine traits and are now viewed as outdated. 

2. Contingency Theory 

The contingency theory of leadership states that effective leadership is contingent upon the specific situation at hand. According to this theory, a leader can be effective in one circumstance and ineffective in another. It simply depends on whether their leadership style fits the given situation.

There are factors, it suggests, that determine whether a particular leader or leadership style will be effective in a situation: the task, the project scope, the leader's personality, the size and composition of the team, resources, and deadlines.

For example, some teams function better with a more autocratic leader and other teams thrive with more hands-off guidance. Different projects require different leadership styles. Some tasks demand innovation, others just need a charismatic and motivational leader to help a team to achieve its goals.

The lesson of this theory is two-fold. On the one hand, it's imperative to find the right leader for the given circumstance. On the other hand, great leaders know that they must be willing to adapt their leadership style to the situation.

3.  Behavioral Theory

The behavioral leadership theory, as the name suggests, focuses on how leaders behave. More significantly, it postulates that these traits can be learned by observing and copying other leaders. Therefore, effective leadership is a learned behavior. In other words, as opposed to the Trait or Great Man theories, leaders aren't born, they're made. 

The behavioral leadership theory puts forth that there are multiple “styles of leadership,” founded upon specific behavioral patterns. Some of the styles of leadership include:

  • People-oriented leaders: encourage innovation, empower employees, reward success

  • Task-oriented leaders: initiate projects, clarify instructions, organize processes

  • Participative leaders: facilitate communication, take suggestions, foster collaboration

  • Status quo leaders: distribute tasks evenly, enforce company policies, remain neutral

There are several more styles, but the key idea of this theory is that, in the end, the actions and actual behaviors of a leader are what define success.

As an example, let's say a challenge arises at work. The task-oriented manager will begin with workflow processes, looking to solve the issue with system management. The people-oriented leader, however, will start with their team, searching for a solution by talking through issues with their employees. They believe that prioritizing a back-and-forth dialogue will generate the optimal solution.

Behavioral leadership theory evolved through behavioral studies of CEOs, project managers, and other leaders across industries as they responded to situations. The common result was that successful leaders consistently conformed to the behavioral standards of one of these leadership styles.

Each of these leadership styles relies on key behaviors, such as strong structure, setting goals, empowering employees, and so on. These traits don't come naturally to everyone, but, as behavioral leadership theory claims, these skills can be learned and strengthened with a bit of work and observation. Once a manager decides what kind of leader they want to be, they can work towards adopting and implementing the associated behavior. 

Leadership approach theories

4. Participative Theory

Participative leadership theory teaches leaders to listen to their employees and involve them in the decision-making process. It encourages an inclusive mindset, proactive communication, and the willingness to share power with team members.

Participative leadership promotes collaboration by highlighting accountability across the board and emphasizing finding solutions collectively. Advocates say that this approach remarkably reduces finger-pointing when problems arise. When every member of the group has a say in decisions, then the group as a whole carries responsibility for the outcome. You can't blame the manager, because everyone is on the same level. 

The leader's role is primarily to facilitate conversation, gather input, and choose the best plan of action. Participative leaders place great value on the team's opinions. Participative workplaces thrive through creativity, innovation, and a collaborative spirit.

5. Transactional Theory

Transactional leadership theory is based on a straightforward system of rewards and punishments as motivators for the team. This approach to leadership, one of the most common in the business world, insists that a structured system of prizes or demerits is the most effective way to get optimized performance from employees. 

In this case, the personality and capabilities of the leader are far less important than the strength of the system and adherence to it. This style places great emphasis on structure, organization, supervision, hierarchy, performance, and outcomes. The leader's main priorities are facilitating tasks, assessing performance, and administering rewards or punishments.

6. Relational Theory

Relational leadership theory is all about the process of bringing people together to accomplish change or achieve a goal that benefits the common good. 

In other words, the relational leader focuses primarily on their interactions with the team members. They make time to talk to their employees, listen to their needs, and develop an enjoyable work environment. Studies show that relationship-oriented managers often get better results from their teams. Employees feel confident in their leader and want to follow them. They are also inspired to be good leaders to others. 

A common evolution of RLT, as it's also called, is that leaders take on mentorship roles with employees. Mentorships foster growth and encourage employees to stay with the company for longer. Relational theory follows the philosophy that great leadership develops more leaders rather than more followers.

RLT also places great value on ethics, inclusivity, and diversity in the group. It strongly believes that promoting diverse talents and perspectives amongst group members elicits the highest quality of group productivity.

The bottom line

Leadership theories, like leaders themselves, come in all shapes and sizes. Some zero in on traits and characteristics and some emphasize the need to adapt to circumstances. Leadership, however, is multi-dimensional. There are many aspects to becoming a great leader. If you aspire to lead, it's important to understand the variety of leadership theories out there to determine what kind of leader you can be.

If a new management role is on your horizon, why not submit your resume for a free resume review to ensure that it's highlighting your leadership potential? 

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