Image by Helmut Stirnweis from Pixabay
Image by Helmut Stirnweis from Pixabay

February is the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day and President’s Day—love and leadership. We are in love with leadership, more than we are in love with each other. This is unfortunate and something we must address—just not in this post. For now, we will stick with the subject of leadership—specifically leadership theories. Why? Because to save a planet, it will take the right leadership.

In my last blog post, I advocated for servant leadership as an especially appropriate leadership style for the task of planet saving. Behind every great leadership style though, is a leadership theory. Leadership theories attempt to explain where good (i.e. effective) leadership comes from.

It can get confusing as you research leadership. The lines are often blurred and crossed between leadership theory and leadership styles. The subject has a thousand heads, like a hydra on crack cocaine. Depending on who’s doing the categorizing there are any number of recognized leadership theories, styles, characteristics, or traits. One academic paper identified 62 different leadership theory domains. Another study identifies thirty-nine leadership styles. Honestly, depending on how you slice and dice theories, styles, characteristics, or traits, you could come up with hundreds of classifications. Not only that, but there is a great deal of contradictory and not so well thought out information on leadership. I’m amazed at the number of times I’ve run across articles and blogs, written word for word, by different authors. Hmmm.

With all of that in mind, I will attempt to describe in a very brief, but hopefully meaningful way, several of the major leadership theories out there. I acknowledge right up front that a two or three sentence explanation is far from complete in describing these theories, but for the sake of this post, here we go.

Great Man Theory—some people are just born special.

The idea behind this theory is that leaders are born special, not made. They are born with the right stuff and stand out from everyone else. These great men shaped history opposed to being just a part of it. It is a sexist theory. It could have just as easily applied to women, but wasn’t. There isn’t a lot of support for this theory anymore, and not just because it’s sexist. Even though everyone is special these days, we don’t believe our leaders (men or women) are born more special.

Trait Theory—some have it, and some don’t, we just aren’t sure what “it” should be.

This theory is similar to the Great Man Theory. It proposes that great leaders have certain traits and characteristics, from physical attributes like height (I am out on that one) to personality like charisma (no comment), that make good leaders. There isn’t much attention given to the source of these traits, whether they are genetic or learned (I am pretty sure the height thing is genetic.) The problem with this theory is that no one could figure out which traits all good leaders had in common, and so it has also fallen out of favor.

Skills Theory—everyone can learn to be a leader, just study hard enough and practice, practice, practice.   

This theory says that the skills you learn, the knowledge you gain, and your ability to apply them, all contribute to being a leader. Learned knowledge, acquired skills, and abilities are the key to being a good leader. Although inherited traits or abilities can still be important, the real key is what you learn and apply.  

Behavioral Theory—monkey see, monkey do (I work at a zoo and can’t help the reference.)

Sometimes referred to as the Styles Theory, good leadership is a learned set of observed behaviors, and therefore can be learned and copied by others. In the parlance of third graders, this is the leadership style of a copycat (that doesn’t make it necessarily bad). Why not copy what is working?

Contingency Theory—think of situational morality (not a good thing), but in this case with leadership (maybe a good thing).

This theory is also referred to as the Situational Theory. It proposes that good leaders adopt their style according to the demands of the situation. The best leadership style depends on the environment where leadership is being exercised, who is being led, the goals and objectives that one is trying to achieve and so on. Depending on the state of affairs, good leaders may have to change their leadership style as the situation changes.

Participative Theory—we are all special and have something to say that counts.

This is the theory of participation, sometimes called the democratic theory of leadership. Under this theory, employees are directly involved in the decision process of the organization. Leaders have final say, but everyone gets a say. Leaders are facilitators of discussion and action.

Transactional Theory—it’s just business, nothing personal.

This theory of leadership is about rewards and punishments—carrots and sticks. It focuses on the transactional exchanges between leaders and the led, as opposed to traits or characteristics of leaders. Both parties benefit from mutually exchanged transactions. Leaders give bonus, praise, and perks while the led give productive performance—in theory—right? The focus is more about what you do (behaviors) as opposed to the who (characteristics or personality traits) you are as a leader.

Transformational Relationship Theory—it’s never just business, it’s always personal.

This theory is also referred to as the Relationship Theory. In this theory leaders help and inspire those they lead. The idea is to help the individual be better, who in turn will help to achieve the overall goals of the organization. High morals and ethical standards are associated with this theory. Leaders are concerned with both motivation and morality, of themselves and of those they lead. Sounds like servant leadership might be lurking under this theory, as well as a few other leadership styles that are advocated for today’s workplace.

Next time I get the urge to post, I will address leadership styles, which—in theory—would be a description of how leadership looks in practice. And, most importantly, I will explain why servant leadership is so well suited in our quest to save the world over some of the other leadership styles that emerge from the Transformational Relationship Theory of leadership.

Thanks for reading. If you like this post—please share it.

This post comes from the book I am writing, Human. Nature.

Jeff Vanek Blog ,