Key Leadership Theories And Their Characteristics

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In any endeavor where multiple people work together, it’s incredibly useful and important to have a singular key leadership voice that helps guide and ultimately lead the endeavor to its completion. That is not to say that all projects need to have a leader calling all the shots, but rather having a person in a position in power to help coordinate all the disparate elements together is key. Consider an orchestra without a conductor. The conductor’s role is to ensure that all the sections of the orchestra play in harmony with each other. Leadership does not come easily to everyone, and considering the extreme importance of having a leader present, a lot of time and effort has been spent in trying to define and examine good leadership. In this article, we will introduce a few key leadership theories and their characteristics with the aim of raising awareness and hopefully helping you improve your own leadership. We’ll be talking about trait theories, behavioral theories, contingency theories, and power theories.

Trait Theories

It’s well established that good leaders tend to have certain traits that make them good leaders. These traits and qualities include, but are not limited to; confidence, empathy, assertiveness, critical thinking, and excellent communication. Trait theories posture that great leaders are born rather than trained. Trait theories were established early-on in leadership research and while it has been established since that it’s more than genetics that plays a key role in making a great leader, it’s important to acknowledge the universal traits of great leaders that Trait Theory presented. Regardless of the situation, it’s always a boon to have a leader that is confident, empathetic, assertive, has sound critical thinking, and excellent communication. These traits are highly valued and if you are trying to be a great leader yourself, it’s an excellent idea to try and express these traits yourself in your behavior.

Behavioral Theories

In stark contrast to Trait Theories, Behavioral Theories postulate that leadership is about more than being born with traits for good leadership. Behavioral Theories instead hypothesize that an individual’s behavior rather than their inherited traits is what turns individuals into great leaders. The result of this hypothesis is that Behavioral Theories posit that leadership is a skill that can be trained and learned by an individual. Like we stated in the introduction, not all people are equally good at leadership, but people can certainly read a book or attend classes to improve their leadership skills. Leadership development is an excellent way to improve yourself and your career prospects and definitely worth the time investment. Great leaders are great action makers after all! In addition to the notion that great leaders can be trained, Behavioral Theories also identified a few key styles of leadership that we now see in use today:

Autocratic = Leaders work alone and make most decisions without consultation.

Democratic = Leaders work with people and foster a cooperative effort in leadership, while still remaining a moderation role.

Laissez-faire = A hands-off approach to leadership where the leader only becomes involved if absolutely necessary.

It should be noted of course, that each of these leader behaviors carries their own pros and cons, and are applicable in different situations. While these seem obvious now, Behavioral Theories were where these leadership styles were first identified and studied.

Contingency Theories

Where Trait Theories examined the inherited and inherent abilities of great leaders and Behavioral Theories examined the behaviors of great leaders, Contingency Theories examined the role of the environment on the leader and their ability to lead. Contingency Theories built on Behavioral Theories and postulated that not all leadership behaviors are equally successful, regardless of the leader using them. The environment that a leader finds themselves in plays a very important role in the success of the leader’s leadership. For example, the Cognitive Resource Theory proposed by Fred Fredier and Joe Garcia in 1987 hypothesizes that a leader’s intelligence and experience have differing importance depending on the stress levels of the environment. In a low-stress environment, leaders with more intelligence and expertise performed better. In a high-stress environment, leaders with more experience in leadership typically performed better. Contingency helped focus leadership research away from just the individual leader and instead begin to focus on the bigger picture.

Key Leadership Power Theories

Since Contingency Theories began to examine a larger picture, specifically the environment, around great leaders, Power Theories expanded outwards further and began to take into account other people into the equation. Specifically, how power differences within members of a team are used by leaders to produce results within a given endeavor. For example, Transactional Theory assumes that people enjoy pleasurable experiences and are always trying to get more. Therefore, people tend to follow and align themselves with leaders that can provide those pleasurable experiences in exchange for following the leader’s orders and working. This ties back into the universally accepted traits of great leaders that we talked about above in Trait Theories and also ties in Behavioral Theories and Contingency Theories as the leader’s behavior and the environment are taken into account as well.

As you can see, leadership theories were built up on top of one another over time in order to better provide a clearer picture as to what a good leader is. In examining leaders as individuals, their behaviors, and the environment they find themselves in, it’s possible to try and emulate and even train yourself to become a better leader. If you find yourself craving the power and responsibility of a leader, we recommend carefully examining yourself, your behavior, and finding ways to emulate leaders that you already value. After all, if you bring others around you pleasurable experiences, they will come to you, willing to work and help you achieve greatness!