Theories of Leadership

  • Wallace SwanEmail author
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Ethical Leadership Transformational Leadership Uncertainty Avoidance Servant Leadership Charismatic Leadership 
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The intent of this chapter is to talk about each of the major theories of leadership and discuss how they are related. Over the years, the field has since evolved into an array of leadership theories – with both striking differences as well as interrelationships between the theories.

What is a theory? According to Abraham Kaplan, “A theory is a way of making sense of a disturbing situation so as to allow us most effectively to bring to bear our repertoire of habits, and even more important, to modify habits or discard them altogether, replacing them by new ones as the situation demands” (Kaplan 1964, p. 295). Not all writing about “leadership” rises to the level of theory, so we shall attempt to eliminate a variety of material that does not meet these demanding criteria.

Weberian Theory

Weberian theory: Max Weber talked about three types of leadership. The first type was traditional leadership, where the model of leadership was found in an organization that might be fairly static, possibly with leaders being chosen in hereditary fashion, and in a society that was not likely to be easily changed. Followers would be guided by the direction of the family, religious, or royal leader. The second type was the rational-legal leadership model. In this organization, the leader would be more likely to have been chosen by merit or political connection, and the organization would be hierarchical, with individuals occupying specific full-time roles for which they are paid. The charismatic leadership model is different, in that the leader would have power based upon their excellent powers of communication and influence, drawing people along by force of personality. Charismatic leadership theory, as further developed by Robert House, indicates followers who provide power to leaders based upon what they see as significant exceptional leadership capabilities (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 375) and that these powers may be inherent in that person or may be learned. Transactional and transformational leadership: Drawing from the examples of differing types of leaders, James MacGregor Burns suggested that one can see several kinds of leaders. Transactional leaders are those who keep an organization stable by giving incentives, rewards, and punishments to employees to perform their tasks. They accomplish many or all of the functions of an existing organization, but do not necessarily push the organization forward to a higher level. By contrast, transformational leaders do pose challenges to their followers that move the followers and the organizations upward to a different level. An example would be Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the movement to ensure improved civil rights for African-American people. Building upon the earlier work of James MacGregor Burns, Bernard Bass developed this theoretical structure to include transactional, transformational, and laissez-faire leadership. Laissez-faire leadership: If one uses a continuum that begins with laissez-faire leadership on the lower left, and then with transactional leadership toward the middle, then one can visualize transformational leadership on the upper right-hand side of the continuum (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 379). In laissez-faire leadership, the employees are trusted to do the work and give suggestions, and the leader simply does the cognitive work that is expected of them (Leadership Styles u.d.). If the employees are not self-directed, intellectual, and motivated, this style is not likely to work well. Northouse looks at this approach negatively, suggesting that the leader is not directive, does not interact effectively with employees, and does not challenge them to expand their horizons (Northouse 2013, p. 196).

Great Person Theories

Great Person theories: The “Great Man” (or perhaps more aptly renamed as “Great Person,” since many great leaders have been women) theory is based upon the examples of major leaders in history. Examples range from Catherine the Great of Russia; Queen Elizabeth I; Peter the Great of Russia; Otto von Bismarck; George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Indira Gandhi; Franklin Roosevelt; Ronald Reagan; Nelson Mandela; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Alexander Hamilton, among many others. From examples such as these, and many others, one is able to draw out some characteristics of the leaders and develop theory about what characterizes their leadership capabilities. For example, Peter the Great went to Western Europe and came back to Russia with ideas about leadership and a determination to create an opening to the West that would modernize the country. Sometimes these characteristics might be traits, sometimes skills, and sometimes simply style or a mixture of the preceding ideas.

Trait and Skills-Based Theories

Trait leadership: Drawing upon the idea that leaders have certain characteristics that make them leaders, and that leadership is a personal quality, trait theory seeks to identify the kinds of “traits” that are found in leaders. From Alexander Hamilton, one would draw the trait of financial acumen, from Otto von Bismarck one would draw the trait of organizational design, and from Franklin Roosevelt one would draw the trait of creativity in the face of financial collapse and wartime attacks. The early efforts involving testing for organizational roles sought out a list of these traits inherent in the applicants, who could then be evaluated, and candidates for positions could then be ranked on which traits they possessed or did not possess. Clearly traits and skills are closely related.

Skills leadership: The idea of skills leadership is just a bit different. Here the idea is that there are certain skills that are essential for a leader to have. The clear difference from the Great People theory, or the trait theory, is that the characteristics are not necessarily something the leader is born with. Instead, with a set of skills that can be learned, it is possible for a person to become a leader. Those skills would be human, conceptual, and technical, as Katz has noted (Northouse 2013, p. 44). At the level of a supervisor, technical skills are essential, as are human skills, with conceptual skills being less important. At the middle level of an organization, technical, conceptual, and human skills are more important. At the highest level of an organization, human and conceptual skills are vital, while technical skills are less important.

Behavioral Theories

Behavioral leadership theory: Instead of looking at traits or skills, one looks at the behavior of the leader. Rensis Likert looked at two types of leaders: the job-centered leader (who focused upon the tasks to be accomplished) and the employee-centered leader (who focused upon the employees, their needs, and how to accomplish a desirable work environment). Ohio State research focused upon initiating structure which involved defining organizational structure to accomplish the job and consideration which created understanding between the leader and the employees (Gibson et al. 2006). The concept of consideration was basically derived from the same approach as employee-centered leadership. Style leadership: This approach suggests that there are certain characteristics of a leader that might be described as their “style” of leadership. Everyone who has worked for a supervisor recognizes that there is a “style” of managing which a supervisor embodies. Northouse suggests that one can compact style into two variables: task behaviors which involve the functions or tasks that need to be done and relationship behaviors which are the relationships that people have in their workplace (Northouse 2013, p. 75). Visualize a continuum with task on one side and relationship on the other side. One could see this approach reflected in Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid, in University of Michigan Survey Research Center studies of how the behavior of the leader had an effect upon groups, and Ohio State studies about how people behaved when performing leadership functions (including initiating structure and consideration). Some supervisors are good at task management, while others are good at relationship management. The ideal boss is able to handle both effectively (Norhouse, pp. 76–82).

Integrated global leadership: As we move from a cultural base for leadership based solely upon the values of one country, into a more globalized context, it is important that we determine the characteristics of leadership that will better respond to that milieu. Geert Hofstede completed a study of one company (IBM) with employees in 53 countries and found four characteristics in common: “power distance, individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity, and uncertainty avoidance.” Project GLOBE then expanded upon these characteristics using dimensions (“power distance, uncertainty avoidance, institutional collectivism, in-group collectivism, gender egalitarianism, assertiveness, future orientation, performance orientation, humane orientation”) and ranked countries as highest and lowest for each of these dimensions (Kinicki and Fugate 2012, pp. 66–68). In this way, it was possible to see how these country’s cultures varied and what needed to be emphasized by managers as a way to be responsive to, and thrive in, these cultures. One might also look at the GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) study, which looks at the ways in which the styles of leadership differ in each of the countries around the world (Robbins and Judge 2015, pp. 175–176).

Multicultural diversity leadership theory: Women as well as racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and gender orientation/identity groups experience discrimination in the workplace (resulting in less than equal pay and unequal treatment). According to research by Bartunek, Walsh, and Lacey, women who are more directive are less effective than those who are less inclined in that direction, but Camilla Stivers and others suggest that the more nurturing styles of women may actually cover up the underlying hierarchical characteristics of systems (Denhardt and Catlaw 2015, p. 196). Subcultures in the society provide us with a number of challenging issues that need to be addressed – including the level of representation, what strategies can be used to include people from diverse cultures, and how to eliminate barriers to promotion and leadership. And increasingly the impact of the recognition of diversity of employees from a variety of world cultures has made dramatic changes in leadership theory.

Relational-Based Leadership

Relational-based leadership: This theory emphasizes the capability of the leader to develop organizational relationships. The emphasis in this theory is not upon authority or hierarchy but instead upon interpersonal relationships (Drath 2001 cited in Uhl-Bien 2006, p. 672) and their capability to create new approaches and attitudes toward organizational issues (Uhl-Bien 2006, p. 654).

Deriving from the relational-based leadership model are distributed approaches to leadership: Emphasis upon the informal group came out of the human relations movement, which suggested that an organization was comprised of both the formal organization (as shown on an organization chart) as well as the informal organization which is comprised of the networks of relationships between employees. Increasingly today, emphasis is placed upon informal leaders who may help to move the organization in directions that management wants to achieve, as well as the role of followers. If top leaders in an organization work on transferring power to the followers as well as informal leaders, then these employees will develop an approach of thinking in ways that will accomplish the goals of the organization – without the leaders having to prescribe their goals and objectives (Van Wart 2012, pp. 93–103). The leaders and managers may also engage in shared leadership, which links together organizational units as opposed to the traditional hierarchical model (with silos of hierarchically distributed power that do not achieve organizational goals).

Contingency and Situational Theory

Contingency leadership: In contingency theory, which may be viewed as one type of situational theory, the key issue is that what works in one context may not work in another. Writers such as Fred Fiedler suggest that there must be linkage between the leader’s style and how much they are able to control (or not control) the context in which they work (Robbins and Judge, p. 369). If they are not able to accomplish this match, they may need to move to a different role, where their capabilities are more effective in meeting organizational goals.

Situational leadership: This theory suggests that the leader needs to link their capabilities to the particular situation in which they find themselves. If there is not a linkage, there is not a good “fit.” This theory indicates that the leader needs to select the correct leadership mode for the followers, which is in turn dependent upon the willingness of the followers to emulate the leader and perform the required task (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 371). Another way of thinking about this is suggested by Kendra Cherry, who notes that in some circumstances, an authoritarian approach might be appropriate while in others a democratic model might be more useful (Cherry n.d.).

The path-goal model is based upon earlier work in expectancy theory which says that an employee will perform well if they see that a high level of effort will lead to a more positive outcome (Hodgetts 1979, p. 275). Victor Vroom originally developed a decision-making model based upon the use of decision trees. The path-goal model discusses four types of leadership (directive leader, supportive leader, participative leader, achievement-oriented leader) and discusses the ways in which one can determine the effectiveness of a leader in a variety of situations (Gibson 2006, p. 326). By providing certain types of leadership and incentives, different goals can be achieved by the various types of leaders.

The leadership participation model proposed by Victor Vroom and Phillip Yetton developed a model, also based upon the use of decision trees, using a step-by-step process by which the leader could determine how much involvement by participants would be appropriate for a particular situation (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 373).

One major form of relational-based theory (but also categorized as falling within contingency theory) is the leader-member exchange (LMX) theory which suggests that the leader must analyze each individual relationship and develop a unique working relationship dependent upon that situation (Northouse 2013, p. 161). The focus in previous leadership theories had been upon the leader and the characteristics of the person who functions in that role. In LMX theory, the key issue is in the “dyadic relationship” between the follower and the leader – with each such relationship being unique. Some types of dyadic relationships are more positive (the “in-group” works better with the leader) and other such relationships are more negative (the “out-group” that just comes to work and goes home). Later theory suggests that “leadership making” involves trying to develop effective dyads with all employees, rather than just those within the “in-group.”

Attribution Leadership

Attribution leadership: This is a reciprocal process. The employee looks at a leader to see what the leader’s capabilities are, while the leader tries to interpret what the employee is doing (Wengrzyn n.d.). Van Wart and Suino note that in that way, expectations help to define both leadership as well as followership (Van Wart and Suino 2012, p. 134). This theory also suggests that people impute certain skills to leaders (Robbins and Judge 2015, pp. 388–389). For example, the belief that Barack Obama was going to bring “change” to Washington D.C. was later a source of great dissatisfaction among many people, because the meaning of “change” was different for each of the individual people who supported his efforts. Substitutes: If a leader is not able to create the needed level of support or structure, they may use their practical knowledge or learning to act as a substitute (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 389). Online leadership is occasionally a difficult effort to accomplish because of the need to develop “identification-based trust” which is built upon a reciprocal interpersonal relationship between a supervisor and supervisee (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 390).

Psychodynamic leadership: In its early stages, there were studies designed to look at the psychological makeup of leaders, in order to determine how one might effectively understand the characteristics of a psychologically healthy (or unhealthy) leader; for example, one might look at Theodor Adorno’s book on the Authoritarian Personality. More current thinking suggests that the personality is comprised of a variety of drives, feelings, and thought patterns. Amanda Taub’s article “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” neatly summarizes the most recent work in this area (Taub 2016)

Team and Participative Leadership Theories

Team leadership: Norhouse indicates that “team leadership” is one of the fastest-growing areas of leadership theory (Northouse 2013, p. 287). With the elimination of a large number of middle management positions, and the decision by top management to convene groups to solve ever-changing problems facing organizations, this is not surprising. The issue, however, is how to coordinate the activities of multiple teams and what type of leadership is most effective for this purpose. Stanley McChrystal, in his discussion of this subject, discusses three approaches that have been, or are being, used: (1) the hierarchical “command” model, where information flows up silos and back down again after being reviewed at the top level; (2) the “command of teams” where multiple teams are on a horizontal relationship, with one leader coordinating their activities; and (3) the “team of teams” model, where teams have a relationship among themselves that is like the person-to-person relationship within an individual team. In the latter approach, people on each team know members of the other teams so that the relationship between them is friendly and not competitive (McChrystal et al. 2015, pp. 128–129). This team of teams forms a network, in which the role of the leader is different. Rather than being a person who is tasked with knowing all of the answers, the leader of the network takes on the role of a “gardener” who is clearing out the weeds and underbrush (McChrystal et al. 2015, p. 226). In his particular example in Iraq, a daily operations and intelligence video teleconference was the mechanism by which this was accomplished. Patrick Lencioni suggests that there are “five dysfunctions” that must be addressed in teams: (1) absence of trust, (2) fear of conflict, (3) lack of commitment, (4) avoidance of accountability, and (5) inattention to results (Lencioni 2002). The use of an open and transparent videoconference is one means to eliminate these types of dysfunctions.

Participative leadership: Most of us are familiar with the kind of leadership that calls for a somewhat more democratic involvement of the people who are working in an organization. Instead of a top-down approach, wherein the leader sets out the goals, objective, and implementation strategies, the idea of participative leadership is that the leader builds in opportunities for employees to suggest directions for the organization as well as ways to accomplish the goals. The leader then provides a framework of overall direction as well as resources to accomplish the aims of the organization. This theory derives from the human relations theorists such as Elton Mayo and Mary Parker Follett, among others.

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership: Robert Terry developed an “Authentic Action Leadership Wheel” that incorporated a variety of features leading to workplace fulfillment (Minard u.d.). The idea emerged more fully after the economic/social crises of the 1990s that a leader must be authentic in their relationships with co-workers and employees. The assumption is that this leader acts in a way which is honest and motivated by their own values, rather than by a desire for benefit to themselves (Minard u.d.). More recently, it has been suggested that authentic leaders know themselves, are transparent, and act upon what they believe (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 381).

Ethics-based leadership: We have all seen the effects of a form of management that does not take into account any type of ethical standard. The British Petroleum (BP) incident in the Gulf of Mexico, the Enron experience with deceptive accounting, as well as the Challenger explosion and the Hurricane Katrina experience all point to problems with lack of adherence to basic ethical constraints. Ethics-based management looks not only at the goals to be achieved by organizations but also the means by which they are to be accomplished. A variety of ethical models are proposed by Van Wart and Suino (2012, pp. 111–112). In their Model of Ethical and Exemplary Leadership, Van Wart and Suino define the characteristics of a “person of good character” and a “person of high character” (Van Wart and Suino 2012, pp. 125). One related approach of interest is that of M.E. Brown who attempts to relate charismatic and ethical leadership using socialized charismatic leadership which emphasizes a leader’s relationship with others, as opposed to solely valuing themselves (Robbins and Judge, p. 383).

Servant leadership: The idea behind servant leadership is that the leader provides resources for, and is supportive of, the people that they manage. This is a radically different idea in that it does not presuppose that the leader supplies all of the energy and inspiration for the organization. Instead the group supplies many of the ideas, and the leader helps to enable the group to accomplish its goals. This approach assumes a level of humility on the part of the leader that is unusual in most organizations. Servant leaders listen to their followers and make sure that they develop the capabilities of their employees (Northouse 2013, p. 219).

Trustworthy leadership: This type of leader is compassionate and capable, ensures clarity of structure, and during a crisis situation does not hide the realities (Kramer 2014, p. 1). The trustworthy leader has the characteristics of integrity, benevolence, and ability (Robbins and Judge 2015, p. 385).

Performance-Based Leadership

Level 5 leadership: Jim Collins (who created the concept of a “high-performance organization”) is the developer of the Level 5 leadership theory which suggests the way that a company achieves greatness is by having a leader who exudes humility but who also has strong willpower (Collins 2005). The levels which lead up to Level 5 are as follows: “Level 1 Highly Capable Individual…Level 2 Contributing Team Member…Level 3 Competent Manager…Level 4 – Effective Leader…” (Level 5 Leadership Project Accelerator News,

Complexity and Integrative Leadership

Complexity leadership theory: As noted by Van Wart and Suino, this theory is premised upon the existence of chaos theory which recognizes the need for adaptation to change as well as awareness that even the smallest change may lead to the need for major organizational adjustment (Van Wart and Suino 2012, p. 145). In the complexity leadership model, there is considerable similarity to relationship theory since it suggests that including people from diverse backgrounds may allow for improved adaptation (Crowell 2011, pp. 3–4).

Integrative leadership: Most recently, the emphasis in public administration has been upon networks and collaboration. Networks are the web of connections between organizations, and collaboration is the process of working together on administrative problems that often cannot be dealt with by a single agency, especially in times when there are limited resources. Hence the idea of integrative leadership is to have different organizations and groups work together on an as-needed basis across traditional organizational lines (Crosby and Bryson 2010, p. 1).


We have seen a wide variety of organizational theories in this chapter. Their value is to allow leaders (and potential leaders) a variety of frameworks to use when one is managing a small group, a division, a department, or a very large organization. The more recent models, especially integrative leadership, emphasize not only management of a single organizational unit but also efforts to take advantage of the possibilities inherent in multiple organizations working together for the common good.


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Walden UniversityMinneapolisUSA