There are more leadership theories than you can shake a stick at. Theories have evolved from “Great Man” and “Trait” theories to “Transformational” leadership – each with a different set of dynamics, contexts and focus.
Early theories tend to focus upon the characteristics and behaviours of successful leaders, whereas the later theories consider the role of followers and the contextual nature of leadership.
Here is an overview of leadership theories – but first here are 2 quick questions for you: (1) see if you can spot which applies to Genghis Khan and which applies to Mother Theresa; and (2) try to figure out which of these theories best describes the style you feel would be most appropriate for leading your change initiative?
(1) The Great Man theory – this was based on the belief that leaders are exceptional people, born with leadership qualities and are destined to lead. This theory reflects the male-oriented view of leadership which has predominated until the late 20th century.
(2) Trait Theory – is based around an extensive list of all of the qualities or traits associated with leadership.
(3) Behaviourist Theories – focus on what leaders actually do rather than on their qualities. Their different patterns of behaviour are observed and categorised as leadership styles.
(4) Situational Leadership – sees leadership as situation specific – where the style of leadership is adapted to the requirements of the context in which it is exercised.
(5) Contingency Theory – is a development of the situational theory – focusing on the situational variables which will determine the most appropriate or effective leadership style to fit the specific circumstances at that time.
(6) Transactional Theory – emphasises the importance of the transaction – or relationship – that takes place between the leader and the led. It focuses on the perceived mutual benefits derived from that relationship whereby the leader dispenses favours in the form of tangible and intangible rewards in return for the commitment, loyalty or [at least] compliance of his or her followers.
(7) Transformational Theory – The central concept here is change and the role of leadership in envisioning and implementing the transformation of organisational performance
(8) Servant Leadership – emphasises the leaders’ duty to serve his/her followers – leadership thus arises out of a desire to serve rather than a desire to lead. It is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. It encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.
(9) Dispersed Leadership – an ‘informal’, ’emergent’ or ‘dispersed’ leadership, this approach argues a less formalised model of leadership where the leaders’ role is dissociated from the organisational hierarchy. Individuals at all levels in the organisation and in all roles can exert leadership influence over their colleagues and thus influence the overall leadership of the organisation.
(10) Primal Leadership – refers to the emotional dimension of leadership. The articulation of a message that resonates with their followers’ emotional reality, with their sense of purpose-and so to move people in a positive direction.
I know it is now fashionable and politically correct to vote for theories 6 – 10, and that for many years it has been fashionable to assume that inherited traits were far less important than learned and situational factors in those people fulfilling leadership roles. However, the science and study of behavioural genetics is gradually refocusing attention on the fact that far more is to do with our genes and our inherited traits and characteristics than has been assumed or accepted for several decades.
So I have to say that the latest research on genetics does appear to indicate what I have long believed – namely that leaders are born not made – so I would go for an element of theory 1 with Genghis Khan. I am not sure how appropriate the Mother Theresa number 8 style is for a business environment? But maybe elements of this are covered in 7 and 10?
Clearly, there are strengths in all of the types of leadership – but in the present turbulent climate, I personally will nail my colours to the mast and select a combination of type 7 and 10 – because transformational and primal leadership qualities applied in a change management context are ideally suited to the holistic and wide view perspective of a programme based approach to change management and, as such, would form key elements of successful strategies for managing change.
And, to ensure that you are employing successful strategies for managing change – that are appropriate to your organisation – you need to know how to apply: (a) these transformational and primal leadership styles, AND (b) how to apply the supporting programme management based processes – that will ensure that you avoid the catastrophic failure rate of ALL business change initiatives.
For more on this: “What is effective leadership?”
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Stephen Warrilow, based in Bristol, works with companies across the UK providing specialist support to directors delivery significant change initiatives. Stephen has 25 years cross sector experience with 100+ companies in mid range corporate, larger SME and corporate environments.