Core Leadership Theories

Learning the Foundations of Leadership 

Leadership label.

Understand core leadership theories.

© iStockphoto/DNY59

Why are some leaders successful, while others fail?

The truth is that there is no "magic combination" of characteristics that makes a leader successful, and different characteristics matter in different circumstances. 

This doesn't mean, however, that you can't learn to be an effective leader. You just need to understand the various approaches to leadership, so that you can use the right approach for your own situation.

One way of doing this is to learn about the core leadership theories that provide the backbone of our current understanding of leadership. We explore these in this article.

Tip:

Our article on Leadership Styles   explores common leadership styles that have emerged from these core theories. These include the "transformational leadership" style, which is often the most effective approach to use in business situations.

The Four Core Theory Groups

Let's look at each of the four core groups of theory, and explore some of the tools and models that apply with each. (Keep in mind that there are many other theories out there.)

1. Trait Theories – What Type of Person Makes a Good Leader?

Trait theories argue that effective leaders share a number of common personality characteristics, or "traits."

Early trait theories said that leadership is an innate, instinctive quality that you do or don't have. Thankfully, we've moved on from this idea, and we're learning more about what we can do to develop leadership qualities within ourselves and others.

Trait theories help us identify traits and qualities (for example, integrity, empathy, assertiveness, good decision-making skills, and likability) that are helpful when leading others.

However, none of these traits, nor any specific combination of them, will guarantee success as a leader.

Traits are external behaviors that emerge from the things going on within our minds – and it's these internal beliefs and processes that are important for effective leadership.

We explore some of the traits and skills that you need to be a good leader in our articles What a Real Leader Knows  , Level 5 Leadership  , and What is Leadership?  

2. Behavioral Theories – What Does a Good Leader Do?

Behavioral theories focus on how leaders behave. For instance, do leaders dictate what needs to be done and expect cooperation? Or do they involve their teams in decision-making to encourage acceptance and support?

In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin developed a framework based on a leader's behavior. He argued that there are three types of leaders:

  1. Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. This style of leadership is considered appropriate when decisions need to be made quickly, when there's no need for input, and when team agreement isn't necessary for a successful outcome.
  2. Democratic leaders allow the team to provide input before making a decision, although the degree of input can vary from leader to leader. This style is important when team agreement matters, but it can be difficult to manage when there are lots of different perspectives and ideas.
  3. Laissez-faire leaders don't interfere; they allow people within the team to make many of the decisions. This works well when the team is highly capable, is motivated, and doesn't need close supervision. However, this behavior can arise because the leader is lazy or distracted; and this is where this style of leadership can fail.

Clearly, how leaders behave affects their performance. Researchers have realized, though, that many of these leadership behaviors are appropriate at different times. The best leaders are those who can use many different behavioral styles, and choose the right style for each situation.

Our article "Laissez Faire" versus Micromanagement   looks at how you can find the right balance between autocratic and laissez-faire styles of leadership, while our article on the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid   helps you decide how to behave as a leader, depending on your concerns for people and for production.

3. Contingency Theories – How Does the Situation Influence Good Leadership?

The realization that there is no one correct type of leader led to theories that the best leadership style depends on the situation. These theories try to predict which style is best in which circumstance.

For instance, when you need to make quick decisions, which style is best? When you need the full support of your team, is there a more effective way to lead? Should a leader be more people-oriented or task-oriented? These are all questions that contingency leadership theories try to address.

The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory   is a popular contingency-based leadership framework, which links leadership style with the maturity of individual members of the leader's team. Other contingency-based models include House's Path-Goal Theory   and Fiedler's Contingency Model  .

You can also use the Leadership Process Model   to understand how your situation affects other factors that are important for effective leadership, and how, in turn, these affect your leadership.

4. Power and Influence Theories – What is the Source of the Leader's Power?

Power and influence theories of leadership take an entirely different approach – these are based on the different ways that leaders use power and influence to get things done, and they look at the leadership styles that emerge as a result.

Perhaps the best-known of these theories is French and Raven's Five Forms of Power  . This model highlights three types of positional power – legitimate, reward, and coercive – and two sources of personal power – expert and referent (your personal appeal and charm). The model suggests that using personal power is the better alternative, and that you should work on building expert power   (the power that comes with being a real expert in the job) because this is the most legitimate source of personal power.

Another leadership style that uses power and influence is transactional leadership. This approach assumes that people do things for reward and for no other reason. Therefore, it focuses on designing tasks and reward structures. While this may not be the most appealing leadership strategy in terms of building relationships and developing a highly motivating work environment, it often works, and leaders in most organizations use it on a daily basis to get things done.

Similarly, leading by example   is another highly effective way of influencing your team.

Effective Leadership Styles

As we mentioned above, transformational leadership   is often the best leadership style to use in business.

Transformational leaders show integrity, and they know how to develop a robust and inspiring vision of the future. They motivate people to achieve this vision, they manage its delivery, and they build ever stronger and more successful teams.

However, you'll often need to adapt your style to fit a specific group or situation, and this is why it's useful to gain a thorough understanding of other styles. Our article on Leadership Styles   takes a deeper look at the different styles that you can use.

Key Points

Over time, several core theories about leadership have emerged. These theories fall into four main categories:

  1. Trait theories.
  2. Behavioral theories.
  3. Contingency theories.
  4. Power and influence theories.

"Transformational leadership," is the most effective style to use in most business situations. However, you can become a more effective leader by learning about these core leadership theories, and understanding the tools and models associated with each one.

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Comments (14)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi NWPortland1,
    It does indeed sound like you are facing some challenges at the moment, and considering some big decisions like relocating.

    I think it is a good thing that you are taking an extreme view and treating it like the steps one goes thru when someone dies or when trauma occurs This extreme view can help you ride those waves of ups and downs, knowing that your emotions may be all over the place, yet keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

    By continuing to take action towards clarifying what you want and where you want to go, and actually doing something, you will be able to surf those waves more easily! Change is inevitable both a work and elsewhere, so, being resilient and positive to get through them will be what helps you stand out from the crowd!

    Good luck with things and please let us know if you want to bounce around any ideas to help you through.

    Midgie
  • Chicago24 wrote Over a month ago
    I'm treating it like the steps one goes thru when someone dies or when trauma occurs. Ive accepted the reality and working with the new management. I've also put in for other positions and thru networking had some good recommendation from prior bosses.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi NWPortland1

    It really sounds like a tough and frustrating time for you and I'm glad to hear that you've worked on certain issues with a counselor.

    Just a few things I want to mention from my perspective - and do keep in mind that I'm pretty clueless about the bigger picture you find yourself in. So, my five cents' worth for what it may be worth...

    I understand the desire for changes when new leadership comes in however there should be in my opinion an acknowledgement of what was achieved within that framework.
    You've said it...in 'your opinion' - maybe it's not just an opinion, but also an expectation from your side. The thing is, with an expectation that something should happen in a certain way comes the possibility of massive disappointment if it doesn't. If you looked at the situation from a neutral perspective, with no expectation and no judgment and you accept it for what it is, it may be a bit easier on you.

    A lesson that I learned from a book by Dr Wayne Dyer when going through my divorce was, "Accept all outcomes." Now honestly, that doesn't come naturally to me. I want to control things and steer them in the direction that I think they should go. However, I caused myself huge stress and anxiety. Today I am a bit better at accepting other outcomes. That doesn't mean that I'm not going for my goals or that I sit back in a pathetic way if I don't reach a goal on time. Rather, it makes me rethink, reset my goals, look at situations from other angles and take all the lessons I can from the outcome.

    I may never get "over" it but have to work on getting past it.
    Sure - I can't agree with you more. Simply because we can't build today on the broken pieces of yesterday. Do have a look at our article about thought awareness: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_06.php

    but relocating before my retirement wasn't what I had planned for
    I realize it may seem like a way out in the short term, but will it be good for you financially, physically and mentally if you resigned? Financially it may take a heavy toll to give up on a job not too long before your retirement - especially if you had to relocate. Relocation also takes a physical toll because it is stressful (mentally as well). Mentally it may also take a toll because you may end up with a feeling of having 'given up' or that you feel you couldn't face a situation. It may not be true, but much of the guilt we feel and beat ourselves up about aren't valid to begin with...so don't want to be adding anything there. Also have a look at our article on ‘Success Programming’ - http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newCDV_42.php

    NWPortland1, the important question now is this: how do you see yourself going forward in your current situation? What is your next step and how will you handle things as they are now?

    Looking forward to hear from you.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • Chicago24 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    I'm depressed the way the situation was handled and because the opportunities that I saw coming available appeared to have vanished. The promotions appear to have gone to individuals half my age. I have had discussions with the new manager and have worked hard to adapt to the new expectations.
    Your point about acting within the organisational rules and the company culture as they were is correct in my opinion. I understand the desire for changes when new leadership comes in however there should be in my opinion an acknowledgement of what was achieved within that framework.
    I have been working with a counselor on strategies and had discussions with others but pretty much the the advice is the same. I may never get "over" it but have to work on getting past it. I have considered putting in for jobs else where in the country but relocating before my retirement wasn't what I had planned for.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi NWPortland1

    I'm sorry to hear that things aren't going as well at work as they could.

    "I feel that I was made a scapegoat for prior upper management decisions."
    Have you perhaps had this conversation with your current manager? It seems as if you acted within the organisational rules and in keeping with the company culture and you feel you are now being punished for it - do I understand correctly?

    "I work with the new management on their suggestions but am depressed about the whole thing."
    I'm interested to know why you feel depressed about the whole thing. Is it the way in which they addressed the situation with you? Is it radically different to what you're used to? Do they have unreasonable expectations? Is it perhaps the change itself that's getting to you?

    I'd love to talk with you some more - we'd like to provide support in any way we can over a distance. (And sometimes it's good to have a place just to vent where people won't judge you...so feel free!)

    Looking forward to hear from you.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • Chicago24 wrote Over a month ago
    Whereas I try to be aware of my leadership style and the latest thoughts about leadership and adapt to the situations it can be highly subjective. I'll give you some examples.
    I always practiced what I thought were situational leadership methods. Under prior management I was always awarded with good appraisals and awards for leadership and results. I never had issues with staff except those who were poor performers or had conduct issues. This nothing new anywhere. Feedback was that I handled issues correctly. I thought I was in a good position for a promotion.
    New management came in and with a few months I received a review that wasn't very favorable. I was told that I don't know how to manage up properly and that I needed to work on my emotional intelligence. I was surprised at this. I always provided feedback to my superiors on ways that I thought issues could be handled differently but ultimately refusing directives wasn't an option. I feel that I was made a scapegoat for prior upper management decisions. I'm currently in my early 60s and now don't see any opportunity for advancement. I work with the new management on there suggestions but am depressed about the whole thing
    I was passed up for several promotion since then
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Raymund

    Well, you really make me feel very honoured with your kind words. AHA moments sometimes come when we least expect them. That's because we've been preparing for them mentally by asking the right questions and searching for answers. So I'm willing to take part of the 'blame' ...the rest is yours to take!

    This type of exchange is really what makes Mind Tools so great - the questions being asked and all of us helping and learning from one another.

    Looking forward to more discussions!

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • iamrafaga wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Michael, Thanks! You are right. Feedback and opportunities are my best teacher. I'm sure they'll bring more light and understanding as I go along my journey.

    Hi Yolande, thank you too for providing me with a clear definition. I am totally in agreement with your explanation. When I was reading your reply, it was an AHA moment for me. It's clear now and I won't forget your answer. By the time I need to mentor someone, I guess I'd be quoting you all the time.

    Thanks to you both!
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    HI Raymund


    I like the way you think and the questions it has prompted you to ask. I will try and explain it the way I see it, but that isn't cast in stone. (I'm quite open to correction from others who know more about the topic or can express themselves better. )

    I feel that 'style' refers to how a leader provides direction, implements plans, and motivates people. So style is more about behaviour and relationship. To me 'type' is more about a leaders natural inclination, based on their personality type or thinking preference. Some people might naturally be more inclined to be autocratic - because of their personality type. Another person may be naturally more inclined to be laid back or laissez-faire.

    With that said, I don't believe that any person is ever a prisoner of their personality - that's why we have the ability to learn skills. So even the most autocratic person by nature may learn to be a super democratic leader.

    Also, if you read up on leadership 'types' and 'styles', you'll find that many articles use the two terms to describe the same traits. Don't worry about the terminology too much - it can become really confusing.

    Our article on the Leadership Style Matrix may also be interesting to you as it explains very well when to use what type of style.
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/leadership-style-matrix.php

    As Michael said, grab opportunities and don't be afraid to ask for feedback from other people regarding your leadership - it's a brilliant way to learn how other people perceive us. It's necessary to know that, because our view from the inside out is quite different to how other people see and experience us from the outside.

    I'm looking forward to hearing from others here and also to share some more of your thoughts and ideas Raymund!

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    iamrafaga, hi you are asking the right questions and that doesn't mean that the answers will be quick and easy ones.

    After 20 years I have had my managers tell me what kind of leader I am and it is in this way that you will really discover your talents. In your Leadership style discovery stage, look for feedback to help you. Just reading your posts indicates you are already a leader in the making.

    Autocratic and democratic are leadership types/styles and one is likely to feel more natural to you than the other. Also in your career you will probably have to exercise both! Leadership is about doing the right things and sometimes you will have to be flexible on how you do them.

    Looking for feedback and opportunity may serve your leadership journey better than definitions! good luck

    Michael
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