Learn the Top Leadership Theories to Become a Successful Leader

Learn the Top Leadership Theories to Become a Successful Leader | Leadership | Emeritus

Leadership is one of the most dynamic constructs in society. Several leadership theories and styles have developed over the decades, such as transformational, behavioral, trait, and situational leadership. Each leadership has its unique approach, strengths, and weaknesses. However, which one is effective for modern leaders? How can modern professionals assess their leadership style? A great way to figure out the answers to these questions is to learn about different leadership theories. This blog provides a rundown of various leadership theories.

Trait Theories of Leadership 

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Think of how sometimes we look at a person, see them talk with confidence or perform tasks, and we immediately think that they can be a great leader. That’s because some people have a strong personality that makes them natural leaders. This notion is based on the trait theory, introduced by Ralph Stogdill in the 20th century.

Trait theories of leadership suggest that some people are born with leadership qualities. Leaders have innate physical, mental, emotional, and social traits such as self-confidence, responsibility, initiative, persistence, sociability, problem-solving, and cognitive abilities that make them more impactful than other people. 

Trait leadership theories suggest that there are certain leadership characteristics that are common in all leaders. Therefore, organizations can find leaders by assessing candidates on these traits. The most common test to identify a professional’s leadership style is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which categorizes leadership styles into four broad categories:

  • Extroversion (E) or Introversion (N) based on how people channel their energy 
  • Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) is based on how someone perceives their feelings
  • Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) depends on how people make decisions 
  • Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) on how someone perceives the world 

ALSO READ: 10+ Types of Leadership Styles and How to Choose Yours (Updated for 2024)

Behavioral Theories of Leadership

The behavioral theories of leadership are completely contrary to the trait theories of leadership. According to these theories, “leaders are not born but made.” The behavioral or style leadership theory focuses on individuals’ behavior—how they react to or perform in different situations. 

The theory describes two types of behavior: task behavior, which is related to achieving goals, and relationship behavior, which involves how leaders connect with and manage their teams. Leaders combine these two behaviors to help organizations achieve success. 

There are three different studies that lay the foundation for behavioral theories of leadership:

1. Ohio State Leadership Study

This study puts leaders’ behaviors into two categories—consideration and initiation. Consideration refers to how considerate leaders are with their team, how compassionate they are, and whether they consider the feelings and emotions of their team members.

Initiation means being task-oriented and proactive. It involves motivating the team to accomplish their goals.

2. University of Michigan Study 

This study explains two types of leadership behavior—employee orientation and product orientation. Employee-oriented leaders value their team members and cater to their personal needs. However, product-oriented leaders focus more on getting the tasks done.

3. Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid Study

The Leadership Grid Theory by Blake and Mouton rates people on a scale of one to nine based on their concern for people and their concern for production. For example, (5,5) means middle-of-the-road management, where the leader is concerned with both production and people.

Leaders can use behavioral leadership theories to determine their behavior and become more effective.

Situational Theories of Leadership

The Situational Leadership Theory by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard explains that there is no one-glove-fits-all approach in leadership. Instead of relying on one leadership style, leaders should adapt their style according to the situation. For example, if a team does not perform well and the members do not follow the instructions, the leader should resort to an authoritative leadership style. However, if members are proactive and keen on learning, the leader can use a democratic leadership style. 

According to situational leadership theories, the four leadership approaches are:

  • Telling (S1): This leadership style is directive and authoritative, where the leader instructs team member
  • Selling (S2): The leader makes majority decisions and communicates them with the team 
  • Participating (S3): In participating approach, the leader encourages all team members to participate in decision-making 
  • Delegating (S4): In this approach, the leader delegates the work to members but oversees it

The theory categorizes followers’ readiness to perform a task and their competence into the following four categories:

  • R1: Followers are unable and unwilling to perform a task
  • R2: They are unable to perform but are willing to do so
  • R3: Followers are able to perform, but they are unwilling 
  • R4: They are capable and willing to perform 

The leaders can adopt different leadership styles based on their followers’ readiness level. For instance, those who fall in the R1 category require the S1 leadership style, those under R2 require S2, and so on.

In the case of R1 employees, leaders use a telling leadership style because the team members are demotivated and unwilling to perform. The leader provides specific instructions, tasks, and responsibilities to the followers, motivating them to perform. R2 involves the selling leadership style, where leaders communicate instructions to train the team. Similarly, R3 uses a participating approach to boost the morale of team members. Lastly, in R4, leaders trust their team and can delegate the tasks.

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Transactional and Transformational Theories of Leadership

These are the two most popular leadership theories in modern times. 

“Instruction does much, but encouragement, everything.” This quote by German poet, playwright, and novelist Johann Wolfgang effectively captures transformational leadership theory. The transformational leadership theory explains that leaders should inspire and motivate team members to transform their skills, thinking, and approach so that they can maximize their potential. The main purpose of this theory is to inculcate positive changes in team members so they can perform better.  

The four elements that enable transformational leadership are:

  • Charisma
  • Inspiration
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Personal attention

Transactional leadership, on the other hand, uses rewards and punishments to motivate employees to perform better. An example of transactional leadership could be providing incentives or bonuses to employees to perform better. Moreover, punishments could be in the form of suspensions or firing if followers violate company policies and guidelines. Hence, transactional leadership encourages positive outcomes and prevents negative outcomes.

Some of the key differences between transactional and transformational theories of leadership are:

  • Transformational leadership is proactive, whereas transactional is responsive
  • In transformational leadership, the aim is to facilitate growth and innovation by inspiring the team 
  • Transactional leadership, however, focuses on establishing an effective organizational culture 
  • Transactional leadership, furthermore, is all about on improving employees’ performance, but transformational leadership promotes creative ideas

ALSO READ: The Golden Rule to Become a Leader

Contingency Theories of Leadership

Introduced by Fred Fiedler in 1967, the Contingency Leadership Theory explains that leaders cannot be effective in all situations. This theory is completely contradictory to situational leadership theory, which says that leaders can adapt to different styles depending on the situation.

However, contingency theories of leadership explain that leaders cannot switch from their natural management style, especially in unpredictable situations. This theory further explains that effective leadership does not depend on a particular style but relies on the combination of three elements—the nature of the task, the relationship between the leader and their team, and the leader’s ability to reward their team. Therefore, a leader’s effectiveness is not based on their style but is contingent on the situation or task at hand.

According to Fiedler, “The quality of leadership, more than any other single factor, determines the success or failure of an organization.”

For example, a software development team is facing technical issues and is unable to complete the project. In such cases, a task-oriented leader will assess the challenges, find resources, and revise the timelines to deliver the project. However, a relationship-oriented leader can also be effective in such cases by encouraging their team members to brainstorm and find creative solutions to overcome the challenges. Even though the two leaders cannot change their leadership styles, they can implement their individual styles effectively.

ALSO READ: Essential Leadership Skills: A Comprehensive Guide For Working Professionals

Modern Leadership Theories 

Modern leadership theories focus on improving the relationship between leaders and followers and facilitating innovation. Some of the best examples of modern leadership theories are:

  • Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in followers 
  • Agile leadership focuses on driving change and innovation through collaboration, coordination, and clear communication 
  • Servant leadership prioritizes their team members’ well-being 

These implementations of modern leadership theories are becoming increasingly prevalent. For example, a study on leadership style in Bengaluru startups reveals that compassionate leadership improves employee engagement and productivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the Different Types of Leadership Theories?

The most popular types of leadership theories are trait theories, behavioral theories, situational, transactional, contingency, and transformational leadership theories.

2. How do Leadership Theories Impact Organizational Success?

Leadership theories explain how leaders are able to achieve goals and connect with team members. Modern leaders can assess their leadership styles and improve them to perform tasks better and motivate their team members. Leaders can also align their personal goals with organizational goals, hence boosting organizational success.

3. Which Leadership Theory is Most Effective in Today’s Business Environment?

Situational leadership is one of the most effective leadership theories in the modern business world. Industry trends are continuously changing due to technological disruptions, climate change, and evolving customer demands. Situational leadership helps businesses adapt to the most appropriate leadership style according to the given situation, thus ensuring better flexibility.

4. How Can Individuals Apply Leadership Theories in Practical Settings?

Individuals can apply leadership theories in a practical setting by assessing their leadership style, analyzing the organization’s culture and goals, and adapting their leadership style to organizational needs.

5. Are Leadership Theories Evolving With Changing Workplace Dynamics?

Yes, leadership theories are evolving with changing workplace dynamics. Employees are now seeking value and prioritize learning at the workplace. Therefore, the traditional authoritative approach is no longer working, and employees demand their participation in decision-making. Hence, leaders have to improve their leadership styles to become more employee-centric.

The above article shows us that effective leadership is the core element for organizational growth, especially for modern businesses undergoing continuous uncertainty. Modern professionals must observe, learn, and practice various leadership styles and trends to become impactful leaders. Emeritus’ online leadership courses can help you learn the latest leadership skills and trends through various case stories, practical projects, and lessons from industry leaders. Explore Emeritus’ online courses to become a successful leader!

Write to us at content@emeritus.org

About the Author

Content Writer, Emeritus Blog
Sneha is a content marketing professional with over four years of experience in helping brands achieve their marketing goals. She crafts research-based, engaging content, making sure to showcase a bit of her creative side in every piece she writes. Sneha spends most of her time writing, reading, or drinking coffee. You will often find her practicing headstands or inversions to clear her mind.
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