A Twist on Leadership Theories

Leadership is a continually contested topic in the research world. What works best? How can people be better, stronger leaders? There have been several leadership style theories created based on observations of what is effective and what is not.

The majority of them focus on how people lead.

It is not how you lead that matters; it is how people need to be lead.

In common leadership theory, the focus has been on how a person gains the acceptance of his/her followers. It has been based on establishing and effectively communicating their goals to others, inspiring change and innovation.

Some of the top leadership researchers have defined leadership as 1 :

  • The creative and directive force of morale (Munson, 1921).
  • The process by which an agent induces a subordinate to behave in a desired manner (Bennis, 1959).
  • The presence of a particular influence relationship between two or more persons (Hollander & Julian, 1969).
  • Directing and coordinating the work of group members (Fiedler, 1967).
  • An interpersonal relation in which others comply because they want to, not because they have to (Merton, 1969).
  • Transforming followers, creating visions of the goals that may be attained, and articulating for the followers the ways to attain those goals. (Bass, 1985; Tichy & Devanna, 1986).
  • The process of influencing an organized group toward accomplishing its goals (Roach & Behling, 1984).
  • Actions that focus resources to create desirable opportunities. (Campbell, 1991).”

Some of the most popular leadership theories are:

Transactional – These leaders tend to focus on contingent rewards, ignoring problems, utilizing micro-management, and using punishments and humiliation to get the work completed by followers. The best way I can put this is: Tit for tat.

Transformational – This leadership style inspires followers to a higher moral conduct, encouraging learning and teaching from each other (the leader included). These leaders encourage followers to take initiative to become better with an emphasis on intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation. Transforming each other.

Servant – These leaders have a people-first frame of mind and thrive off of follower satisfaction and collaboration. These leaders love to build up morale and help people re-engage. A word of caution: Not all those that are called Servant leaders are truly Servant.

Situational – Leadership style that is based on contextual factors and the overall situation, paying attention to followers’ level of readiness. Situational leaders are constantly adjusting their leadership style from directive, managing, coaching, and delegating, depending upon the maturity level of each follower.

Charismatic – These leaders inspire their followers to attain shared goals, often garnering unquestioning obedience. The followers are often influenced by their perception of the leader having exceptional qualities regardless of if the leader actually has them. There is a lot to be said about intent with this style.

Laissez-Faire – A leadership theory based on a hands-off approach where the leaders provide the tools and resources and then lets everyone else make decisions, solve problems, and accomplish the work.

Theory X (aka Authoritative) – Based on management taking control on all levels to result in higher employee production. This focuses around dictating and control.

Theory Y (aka Participative or Democratic) – Based on management incorporating employee involvement on decision-making and input. This is about engaging and empowering others.

So, the question is: How do you typically lead?

What if I told you that it really doesn’t matter how you lead?

The key is not in your personal leadership style, which is typically an indicator of how you follow. The key is in how people need to be lead.

People are individuals. While some share similarities, not everyone will fall into the same category for how they are motivated and lead.

Do you know how to modify your leadership style to suit the needs of others?


1. As cited by Wren, 1995, p. 41

Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. New York: The Free Press.

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