by Andrea Charman

Leadership theories

People have sought to explain leadership from many angles. The unrepenting turbulence of the 21st century experience, often referred to as metaphorical climate change in organisational life of all kinds, has had a huge impact on leadership thinking.

According to Margaret Wheatley, we must move from Newton’s traditional mechanistic linear thinking to the holism of quantum thinking and Fritjof Capra’s world of relationships, organic webs and systems.

Below is a review of leadership theory, adapted from Bolden and others.

Great man theories

These are based on the belief that leaders are exceptional people, born with innate qualities and destined to lead. The use of the term ‘man’ was intentional, since until the latter part of the 20th century the concept of leadership was primarily male, military and western. This led to the next school – trait theories.

Trait theories

The lists of traits or qualities associated with leadership exist in abundance and continue to be produced. They draw on virtually all the adjectives in the dictionary which describe some positive or virtuous human attribute, from ambition to a zest for life.

Behaviourist theories

These concentrate on what leaders actually do rather than on their qualities. Different patterns of behaviour are observed and categorised as ‘styles of leadership’. This area has probably attracted most attention from practising managers.

Situational leadership

This approach sees leadership as specific to the situation in which it is being exercised. For example, while some situations may require an autocratic style, others may need a more participative approach. It also proposes that there may be differences in required leadership styles at different levels in the same organisation.

Contingency theory

This is a refinement of the situational viewpoint and focuses on identifying the situational variables that best predict the most appropriate or effective leadership style to fit the particular circumstances.

Transactional theory

This approach emphasises the importance of the relationship between leader and followers, focusing on the mutual benefits derived from a form of ‘contract’ through which the leader delivers such things as rewards or recognition in return for the commitment or loyalty of the followers.

Transformational theory

The central concept here is change and the role of leadership in envisioning and implementing the transformation of organisational performance.

Today’s truly effective leaders are able to draw on a range of styles linked to the above theories in order to meet the needs of the moment. See The evolution of leadership style.