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8 Major Leadership theories: Strengths, Weaknesses and Examples

Leadership is a multifaceted subject, and a combination of various factors determine why some people are successful leaders. The theories of leadership are the studies and views of experts, scholars, and researchers that describe the aspects that make a great leader.

Different schools of thought have varied opinions on how can you become an extraordinary leader. Some theories suggest that you need to have inborn traits, some advocate you to shape your persona as per the situation, while others emphasize on effective behavior.

However, there are some common characteristics of exceptional leaders. Analyzing the takeaways from these theories can help you understand them and evolve as a leader.

Let’s have a look at the eight major theories, along with their strengths, weaknesses, and examples.

1) Great Man Theory of Leadership: Leaders are born, not made

The great man theory is one of the earliest ways to look at leadership. It states that some people are born with the traits of a leader; they have the gift of unique qualities. These attributes separate them from the masses and make them reach the position of power and authority.

Thomas Carlyle, who is associated with much of the work on this theory, said,

“The history of the world is the biography of great men.”

For example, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin did not receive leadership training. However, they took on leadership roles and captured the imagination of the masses. These leaders had an unexplained tenacity to rise to the top when a lot of similar people were experiencing almost identical circumstances.

However, Herbert Spencer, a noted philosopher, was not in favor of this theory. He said, leaders are the result of their conditions; before they alter society, society has to make them.

For instance, people like Mahatma Gandhi, who were not trained in leadership but became great leaders, had leadership styles that were an extension of their personal experiences and life story.

2) Trait Theory of Leadership: Measure your leadership potential

The basis of Trait theory is the premise that ‘leaders are born not made.’ It is an extension of the Great Man theory of leadership.

The theory states that the comparison of your leadership characteristics to the list of the traits of many successful and unsuccessful leaders can be used to predict your leadership effectiveness.

The following figure gives us a list of a few traits of great leaders:

You can use the traits mentioned in this theory as a yardstick to assess your ability as a leader. Since these are personality traits, you can use personality assessment tests to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Critics of this theory suggest that the list describing the leadership traits of successful leaders is very long – more than a hundred different traits. Also, situational factors, like social and economic inequities that impact your ability to lead, are not taken into account.

3) Contingency Theory of Leadership: Match your leadership style to the situation

Contingency theory, developed by Fred Fielder in 1958, assumes that leaders are either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Task-oriented leaders assign tasks, set deadlines, and follow structural processes. Relationship-oriented leaders focus on people and are considerate.

Your success as a leader, according to this theory, lies in finding out the leadership style and situation in which you would flourish.

There are eight possible combinations for three situational variables, as shown in the following figure:

A good leader-member relation means your group members like you. High task structure implies that you are directing a well-defined job, and a strong position power would mean you have a position of high authority. The favorableness of a situation is the extent to which the situation allows you to influence your group.

For example, imagine you are a newly appointed store manager in one of the leading apparel brands. You will be poor on leader-member relations as you are new to the job. Task structure will be high as there will be clear operating procedures on how to deal with customers. You will be strong on the position of power as you can reward or punish employees as a store manager.

Now, how do you decide on your leadership style? That brings us to the second part.

As per the theory, task-oriented leaders perform well in situations that are very favorable or unfavorable, and relationship-oriented leaders perform well in situations that are intermediate in favorableness, as shown in the following figure:

Hence, as per the Contingency theory, the best way to approach your new job as a store manager is to use a relationship-oriented style.

What are the other situations in which you can apply contingency theory?

It can also help you identify the right talent for leadership openingsin your organization. You can compare the leadership style of the aspirants to the situation for which you need to hire a leader if they match you employ the person else you reject.

Though the contingency theory is quite dynamic, there are some downsides to it.

You need to fall under only a set of leadership styles to apply this theory. Also, there can be scenarios where you may want to change the situation rather than match your style of leadership to it. The contingency theory will not help you in these circumstances.

4) Situational Theory of Leadership: Adapt to the situation

Dr. Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard developed the Situational Theory of leadership. It states you cannot have one leadership style for all situations. The leadership style you adopt, depends on circumstances.

According to the theory, you should follow four primary leadership styles as per the readiness level of your subordinates:

Telling (Autocratic approach): You can adapt this style for the ‘Readiness 1 level’ of subordinates; these people lack the ability as well as the willingness to do the job.

For instance, if you are a leader in a war or an emergency room of a hospital, you need to adapt to telling (authoritative) style of leadership.

Selling (A little Democratic approach): This style is suitable for the ‘Readiness 2 level’ of subordinates, i.e., for people who lack the ability but are willing to do the job. Example: To lead a team of millennials in a software organization, you will have to use the selling style of leadership.

Participating (Democratic approach): You should use this method when your subordinates have the ability but lack the willingness to do the job.

Delegating (Hands-Off approach): You need to delegate work to people who have the ability, as well as the willingness to do the job. You can use this style in case you are working on an urgent assignment, and another task pops up, you will need to ‘delegate’ it to a competent subordinate.

The following figure explains the leadership styles according to the behavior of subordinates :

Do the above situations sound familiar? Go ahead and apply this theory to your workplace. Here is how you will grow as a leader:

You will be flexible to adapt to a variety of situations. Your awareness level will rise as you always need to be familiar with the situation around you. It will also lift the morale of your group members and give them a comfortable work environment.

However, you need to be cautious that this theory focuses on short term needs rather than long term goals. You may lose sight of your organizational objective and end up responding to immediate requirements only.

Another issue is that, even with the variables mentioned for various situations in this theory, it is difficult to ensure that you will analyze the situation the same way as other leaders. As a result, outcomes can vary.

5) The behavioral theory of Leadership: Leaders are made not born

This theory states that if you condition your behavior for the response to any given situation, you can be a leader. It focuses on your behavior and actions rather than traits or abilities.

According to the theory, your behavior as a leader determines your performance. Through teaching and observation, you can train yourself to behave as a leader. Thus, the theory concentrates on leadership and not the leader, i.e. it treats leadership as a characteristic that you can develop through practice. 

Kurt Lewin explained one of the behavior leadership theories in the 1930s. He identified three types of leadership behaviors, as described in the figure below:

In case you need to focus on the profit margins of your organisation or achieve stringent deadlines, you should apply the authoritative behavior of leadership. You can allocate tasks, arrange formal lines of communication, and set up quick turnaround time for your group members.

However, various researches on Lewin’s theory showed mixed results as most leaders used some part of either of the three leadership behaviors.

To help leaders decide on what behaviors to choose, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt devised a continuum of leader behaviors (see below figure):

The continuum ranges from boss centered leadership to subordinate centered leadership along with what behavior you should display. You move from autocratic to democratic behavior as you go from boss to subordinate centered leadership.

Another behavior theory of leadership is the Ohio State leadership studies. It describes leader behavior in two dimensions, as explained in the figure below:

Initiating Structure behavior: You define what is expected of group members, set up formal lines of communication, and determine how subordinates will perform tasks.

Consideration behavior: You are concerned about subordinates and establish a warm and friendly work environment like you allow flexible working hours to your employees or set up daycare for infants in your organization. This approach is subordinate oriented and can help create the right environment for increasing productivity.

You need to be patient while applying the behavioral theory. The difference between knowing the behavioral styles and actually applying them takes repeated failures and lots of practice.

6) Participative theory of Leadership: The democratic dimension to lead

This theory says that the ideal leadership style takes input from others. According to the theory, you need to facilitate discussion. After collecting relevant inputs from everyone, synthesize the given information to arrive at a decision.

Following figure represents the process to effectively apply participative theory of leadership:

The theory attempts to remove the hierarchical distance between you and your group. It involves collective involvement and responsibility to achieve the goal.

For instance, Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates has empowered his key employees to make crucial decisions of significant departments like innovation and marketing.

He has set up strong digital channels for facilitating communication within the company. Also, people who need specific information about the organization can access it. Open sharing of information and knowledge has helped Microsoft grow leaps and bounds.

Are you planning to bring new policies in your organization?

Use the tools of participative theory. The implementation of new policies becomes easier with this method as decisions arrive with consensus. Also, group members perform well, even in your absence, because their morale is high, and they feel valued and accountable.

You need to be aware though that the decision-making process may take a lot of time, which can affect the efficiency of your group. Taking input from every group member can also cause indecisiveness on some points.

7) Transactional theory of Leadership: Do or die

Max Weber and Bernard M. Bass described this theory. The basis of the theory is the concept of rewards and punishments. The group gets a reward or punishment depending on whether it achieves the goal set by you.

To understand further, you should know the hierarchy of human requirements.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human needs can be represented in the form of a pyramid, as can be seen in the figure below. The needs at the bottom are the most basic ones like sleep, food. As you go up the pyramid, needs become difficult to achieve.

As a transactional leader, you concentrate only on the bottom of the pyramid for your group members. You ensure to fulfill the physiological needs of your group, along with financial security.

Sounds mean?

Well, it’s true that with this leadership style, the relationship between you and your group is transitory, with no emotional bond. Also, the creativity of your employees takes a hit as you do not encourage new ideas.

However, this type of leadership motivates your group members by engaging them in their self-interest. Also, the productivity of your group members increases as they try to achieve their targets in a shorter duration. If your project requires undeviating and specific processes, you can use this style to accomplish the desired results.

8) Relationship theory of Leadership: Transformation through association

Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns initially introduced this theory. Also known as transformational theory, the basis of it is the relationship between you and your group. According to the theory, you need to build the trust of your subordinates by building quality relationships with them.

You need to have four behavioral components to be a transformational leader, as explained in the figure below:

Charisma gives power to you as a relationship leader. Individualized consideration means your ability to increase the growth of the group. Inspiration refers to your quality to inspire group members. Intellectual stimulation allows you to build awareness of problems and solutions.

According to a study by the University of Cologne, Germany, transformational leaders result in well being of their group.

Here is how you can bring a positive change with this leadership:

By following this approach, you not only look at the bigger picture but also help individual group members attain their potential. You transform the culture of your organization and achieve goals. Your employees will show a higher level of performance and satisfaction because they feel inspired and empowered.

However, transformational leadership will not work if you have a group of less-skilled members, as they require direction and guidance in an authoritarian style.

A classic example of a transformational leader:

Steve Jobs was truly transformational. He inspired employees to think beyond what they had already done. His passion for innovation, perfection, and simplicity drove Apple to achieve unbelievable results. He challenged his employees and made them create things that the world had never seen before.

Conclusion:

The ‘Great Man’ theory and ‘trait’ theory suggests that leaders have leadership traits by birth. It is imperative, though, that you groom and develop these qualities. The inspiration to lead may come from within, but you need to train yourself to appeal to the masses. Also, note that intrinsic qualities are a matter of choice and not chance. For example, being virtuous or dishonest to your group is an option.

You need the right psychological make-up to step in the shoes of a leader. Analyze the circumstances in which you are supposed to lead and prepare yourself according to the situation. Once you are aware of the circumstances and the qualities you need, use the tools described in leadership theories to set your leadership approach.

What are the qualities that you wish to acquire as a leader? How would you apply leadership theories to develop them? Do let us know in the comments below.

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