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.


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.


Top 100 Leadership Quotes on Leadership qualities to Inspire You

Why quotes?

Words are powerful. You express yourself through them.

Express what? Feelings, emotions, thoughts?  

Yeah! But where do words get the power they have?

Is it the vocabulary or the combination of letters that form words, that give them the strength they have?

Nah, there’s something more.

You read words that express something, and call them scrap. Then you read some other words, take a print out and pin it on your desk to read them every day.


It’s the experiences that words bring with them that inspire you.

Quotes are a summary of experiences. When you read a quote, you get an overview of the actions great people have taken in a difficult situation; or, they suggest the steps you should take to become great. That’s why you feel motivated by reading quotes.

Why leadership quotes?

As a leader, you are bound to have ups and downs. What if you are feeling low and need a source of inspiration for yourself? Leadership quotes can give you the motivation to fight back when you are down. They can help you remind the basics, as well as expose you to new learning.  

Leadership quotes have the power to bridge the gap between where you currently stand as a leader and where you want to be. They give you the path followed by successful leaders, and help you know the qualities exhibited by them.

If you still aren’t getting it right, you may not be applying the essential qualities of a great leader. Hence, I have divided the following 100 inspirational quotes based on these qualities. You can use these quotes to brainstorm and enhance your leadership potential with a new energy.

Leadership quotes on Empathy

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” – Oprah Winfrey

“Empathy is about being concerned about the human being and not just about their output.” – Simon Sinek

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” – Stephen Covey

“As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.” –  Jim Rohn

“The only way to change someone’s mind is to connect with them from the heart.” – Rasheed Ogunlaru

“In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive, and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.” – Daniel Goleman

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

“There are two sides to every issue.” – Ayn Rand

“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”– Roger Ebert

Leadership quotes on Communication

“Ninety percent of leadership is the ability to communicate something people want.”  – Dianne Feinstein

“Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating.” – Simon Sinek

“Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.” – Gilbert Amelio

“The art of communication is the language of leadership” – James Humes

“Regardless of the changes in technology, the market for well-crafted messages will always have an audience.” – Steve Burnett

“Leaders who make it a practice to draw out the thoughts and ideas of their subordinates and who are receptive even to bad news will be properly informed. Communicate downward to subordinates with at least the same care and attention as you communicate upward to superiors.” –  L. B. Belker

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” –  Lee Iacocca

“Frown on lapses of information. When people admit that they didn’t keep you informed, let them know that you don’t want this kind of protection. A couple of strong reactions by the manager, and a subordinate learns to make sure the boss gets the word—all of it.” – Thomas L. Quick

“Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair trigger balances, when a false or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act.” – James Thurber

Leadership quotes on Resilience and Decisiveness

“‎Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself-and be lenient to everybody else.” – Henry Ward Beecher

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson Mandela

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

“You don’t learn to walk by following the rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” – Richard Branson

“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” – Arnold H. Glasgow, American Psychologist

“Leaders make the right decisions, even when those decisions are unpopular” – Anonymous

“Inability to make decisions is one of the principal reasons executives fail. Deficiency in decision-making ranks much higher than the lack of specific knowledge or technical know-how as an indicator of leadership failure.” – John C. Maxwell

“Before you make a leadership decision, put yourself in the other person’s position.” – Billy Cox

Leadership quotes on Integrity

“It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without integrity you will never be one.”  – Zig Ziglar

“Integrity is the most valuable and respected quality of leadership. Always keep your word.” — Brian Tracy

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” — Warren Buffett

“Integrity is crucial for business success – once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Henry Ford

“If you believe in unlimited quality and act in all your business dealings with total integrity, the rest will take care of itself.” – Frank Perdue

“If ethics are poor at the top, that behavior is copied down the organization.” – Robert Noyce

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” – Alan K. Simpson

“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” – Oprah Winfrey

Leadership quotes on enthusiasm

“Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” – Norman Vincent Peale

“No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life.” – Samuel Goldwyn

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The real secret of success is enthusiasm.” – Walter Chrysler

“Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

“If you don’t feel enthusiasm for the work you are doing, then you probably should be doing something else as enthusiasm is a key to success. “ – Catherine Pulsifer

“Your enthusiasm will inspire others to move forward with actions that bring rewarding achievements.” – Steve Brunkhorst

“If you act enthusiastic, you become enthusiastic – and it spreads like wildfire!”  – Mary Kay Ash

Leadership quotes on Vision

“A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done.”  – Ralph Lauren

“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” – David Gergen

“The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” – Theodore Hesburgh

“To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership—not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere.” – Ronald Reagan

“Leadership is all about vision and responsibility, not power.” – Seth Berkley

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”  – George Washington Carver

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” – Warren Bennis

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” – Jack Welch

“Management has a lot to do with answers. Leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader always is: ‘Who do we intend to be?’ Not ‘What are we going to do?’ but ‘Who do we intend to be?’ – Max DePree

Leadership quotes on Creativity

“A business has to be evolving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.”  – Richard Branson

“The secret of success in business is creativity.” – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

“Innovation and creativity are the juiciest parts of running a business.” – Barbara Corcoran

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” – Ken Robinson

“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” – Seth Godin

“Good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they are in.” – Ed Catmull

“For success of any mission, it is necessary to have creative leadership. Creative leadership is vital for government, non-governmental organizations as well as for industries.”  – APJ Abdul Kalam

“Creative leaders inherently know when rules need to be challenged, and they can see when a more flexible approach should be taken.” – John C. Maxwell

“Creativity is just connecting things.” – Steve Jobs

Leadership quotes on Charisma

“Being charismatic doesn’t make you a leader. Being a leader makes you charismatic.” – Seth Godin

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sugar your presence lasts in your absence.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook

“In order to have a charismatic leader, you have to have a charismatic program. Because if you have a charismatic program, then if you can read you can lead. When the leader gets killed while you’re reading from page 13 of your charismatic program, you can bury the man with honors, then continue the plan by reading from page 14. Let’s keep on.” – John Henrik Clarke

“If you have a charismatic cause you don’t need to be charismatic leader.” -James C. Collins

“When you put deep knowledge about a subject that intensely matters to you, charisma happens. You gain courage to share your passion, and when you do that, folks follow.” – Jerry I Porras

“Charisma is a sparkle in people that money can’t buy. It’s an invisible energy with visible effects.”  – Marianne Williamson

“Charisma knows only inner determination and inner restraint. The charismatic leader gains and maintains authority solely by proving his strength in life.” – Max Weber

“Charisma is the intangible that makes people want to follow you, to be around you, to be influenced by you.” – Roger Dawson

Leadership quotes on Empowerment

“Leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they did not think possible.” – Simon Sinek

“Leadership is not about control but service. It’s not about power but empowerment.” – Myles Munroe

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch

“Leaders instill in their people a hope for success and a belief in themselves. Positive leaders empower people to accomplish their goals.” -Unknown

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates

“Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished.” – Lisa Cash Hanson

“Great leaders harness personal courage, capture the hearts and minds of others and empower new leaders to make the world a better place.” – Maxine Driscoll

“People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.” – Howard Schultz, Starbucks

“My job as a leader is to make sure that everybody in the company has great opportunities and that they feel they’re having meaningful impact to the good of the society. – Larry Page, Google

Leadership quotes on Competence

“I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.” – Estee Lauder

“Building a business and becoming a billionaire is it’s not championship. It’s the competence; the competence in your sector with other companies not looking to have some kind of records in this issue”. – Carlos Slim

“Trust is equal parts character and competence. You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always the failure of one or the other.” – Stephen Convey

“The test of true competence is the end result.” – L. Ron Hubbard

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.” – Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State.

“When your confidence goes up, your competence goes up at the same time.”- Zig Ziglar.

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.” – General John J. Pershing

“The moment a leader stays away from his core competencies, his effectiveness as a leader diminishes.” – Andy Stanley

“Success demands a high level of logistical and organizational competence.” – George S. Patton

Final thoughts:

The above quotes can be a great source of strength for you to develop leadership qualities. However, you need to apply these in your day-to-day work to achieve success.

Reading and getting inspired by them is just half work done. The next step is to practice these quotes and achieve your leadership potential. Remember-

“Words without actions are like a bird without wings; they remain wherever they are.”