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Refine your approach with these 7 leadership theories
What does leadership look like in practice?
When we imagine what a leader is, what they look like, and what they do, there are a few traits that they have in common. Most of us think of leaders as confident, decisive, and future-minded. But when it comes down to the day-to-day work of leading and managing others in the real world, those traits might feel a little nebulous.
Depending on the view of leadership you’ve embraced, you might believe leadership comes from within. You may have been told that leaders are “born, not made.” Or you might believe that everyone has the potential to step up and lead at any time.
You may think that becoming a leader takes a lot of study and the right education. Conversely, you might believe some version of trial by fire, that leadership emerges through doing. Perhaps it requires practicing skills and techniques under the tutelage of a great leader. Perhaps it requires self-knowledge and self-mastery through a lot of Inner Work®.
That’s all great — and none of these leadership theories are wrong, exactly. But where does that leave you if you’re leading a team? What exactly do you do? And if none of it is wrong, how do you know what you’re doing is right?
The fact is, there are all kinds of ways to lead. It isn’t about choosing one right theory over others. As people, we learn the best by example. It’s one of the reasons we enjoy reading the stories of other leaders so much. We’re inspired by their example. But a leader is influenced by more than the people they’re leading. They change their strategy to fit the circumstances they find themselves in and the goals they want to accomplish.
To keep up in the modern-day workplace, we can’t cling to just one kind of leadership. The world is changing fast, so leaders, managers, and professionals have to stay agile and change with it. A solid understanding of leadership theories — and what each one entails — can help you pivot in changing circumstances. It can also help you be a more inclusive leader, at ease when working with different types of people. Here are seven key leadership theories that every manager should know and understand.
What are leadership theories?
Great leaders inspire others to achieve high standards. They are good role models, make sound decisions, and provide emotional support. But what does it take to become a “great leader?”
What are leadership theories?
Leadership theories are philosophies that explain what defines a leader and makes them successful. There are many schools of thought, and some contradict one another. But studying these approaches provides valuable insight that leaders can use as they grow.
Formal attempts to define the qualities of a successful leader date back to the mid-19th century. At that time, scholars and philosophers believed that certain personality traits determined whether one could lead. These traits were linked to specific individuals who had demonstrated effective leadership. The concept of “leadership development” was non-existent at this point, since you either had it or you didn’t.
As the study of leadership evolved, researchers began to identify a sort of leadership spectrum. Now, it’s widely accepted that leadership isn’t based on a finite set of characteristics. The best leaders are able to adapt their approach to meet the needs of their team and the challenges ahead.
Why study leadership theories?
As a manager, you likely want to be a good leader. And while there's no one perfect way to lead, studying leadership theories can give you some tools and ideas to try out. By becoming a student of leadership skills and approaches, you’ll be more well-rounded. You’ll also find that you’re better equipped to help others succeed as well.
The more experience you have with different theories, the more agile you’ll be as a leader. After all, even though there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, you’ll have a style of working with others that you tend to default to. To be an agile leader, you’ll need to develop the ability to switch approaches quickly.
How many leadership theories are there?
There are many different leadership approaches — and with every new book on the topic, another one is born. Many leadership researchers, authors, and organizations have distinct models of leadership. However, most fall into one of the seven major theories below:
Trait theory posits that people are born with certain traits and that these traits lead to successful leadership. For example, a leader might be born with charisma, which enables them to rally people to their cause. The idea behind this theory is that it can help managers identify potential leaders within their ranks. However, it should be noted that not everyone who possesses the “necessary traits” will make a good leader; it takes more than just raw talent.
This theory has been (largely) debunked, since notions of what comprises "leadership traits" are not even agreed upon. They’re often based on data or ideas about management and authority from the last century. These outdated ideals don't reflect a more diverse and mobile global workforce. They also don’t adapt well to the changed conditions and demands on the leadership of a digital, technology-driven, exponential business environment.
However, just because we know something isn’t true doesn’t mean we don’t believe it. Some people feel that those who are introverted or shy aren’t strong leaders. These biases can lead others to overlook people who might not be the “obvious” choice for leadership roles.
One of the most well-known leadership theories is the behavioral theory, which posits that leaders can be made, not born. This theory looks at what leaders do, rather than their traits or inner qualities. One key tenet of this theory is that there is no one perfect way to lead and that the best approach depends on the situation. To be an effective leader, then, you need to be adaptable and have a range of different leadership styles in your toolkit.
Contingency theory posits that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. Instead, the style of leadership that is most effective depends on the situation at hand. Contingency theory is also known as situational leadership theory.
Generally, task-oriented leadership is more effective when the team is both skilled and motivated. Relationship-oriented leadership is more effective when direct reports need more support and guidance. Leaders shift their approach to suit the needs of their team and organization.
Transformational leadership theory
Transformational leadership creates positive change in both the followers and the leader. This change can be something small, like improving work habits, or something big, like developing a new product. Leaders who use this style of leadership motivate and inspire their followers to achieve greatness.
A transactional leadership style helps keep teams moving quickly. Rewards and consequences are clearly communicated. The idea is that there’s an exchange — a role to be played — by both parties. The leader is responsible for keeping the rewards flowing and punishments consistent. The other party (generally an employee) simply needs to “keep their end of the bargain.”
This “cut-and-dried” type of leadership gets results — but often at the expense of employee engagement. Participants in these settings are less likely to take an active role in the decision-making process. They tend to eschew responsibility for outcomes beyond their immediate roles.
Great Man Theory
This theory arose during the 19th century and was popularized by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. The great man theory argues that history is shaped by a select few great men, who are born with the natural ability to lead and influence others.
While this theory has been largely discredited, it still offers some insights into the concept of leadership. For example, the idea that leaders are born rather than made suggests that leadership ability can’t be taught or learned — or at least, that many people believe that to be true. This theory also places a great deal of emphasis on individual achievement and greatness. It downplays the importance of team effort or group dynamics.
In terms of leadership, coaching theory views leaders as skilled supporters, who work with team members to help them reach their desired goals. A coaching leadership style is collaborative and focused on the skills of the individual. Managers can use coaching by setting clear expectations for what people are supposed to do, modeling desired behaviors, providing ongoing feedback on how well those expectations are being met, and discussing potential opportunities for improvement.
What is the best leadership theory?
There is no one best leadership theory. Instead, there are several different theories that can be useful in different situations. The key is to know which theory will work best in a given situation and to be able to adapt your leadership style as needed.
Instead of trying to figure out which theory of leadership is best, learn to adapt your managerial style to a variety of situations. Knowing that you have the tools to handle anything that comes your way will help boost your self-confidence.
How do you apply leadership theories?
BetterUp’s research has identified that one of the most important qualities that a leader can have is future-mindedness. A future-minded leader can think through multiple, possible outcomes and anticipate what to do in each situation.
As you look to integrate the key points of the main leadership theories, it’s a good idea to develop your power of prospection. Think through: What could happen? Who would be involved? What would success look like, and how could we achieve it in the face of the worst-case scenario?
1. What could happen?
Grace under pressure is a trait associated with many successful leaders, and rightfully so. Doing something new and taking risks often means dealing with a high level of uncertainty. When ambiguity is handled poorly, it can foment mistrust and fear in even the most connected work environment.
A leader that’s confident and self-assured (trait theory) can inspire trust and confidence in their team — for a time. But if it’s not backed up with action (behavioral), people begin to feel that their leaders are keeping secrets or out-of-touch.
In ambiguous situations, let your direct reports see you work through possible scenarios (situational theory). Show them that you’re aware of both their concerns and the worst-case scenario. Don’t be afraid to bring in outside help. Asking for help can seem scary, because it means admitting that there’s something you don’t know. But the very act is proof that a plan is underway.
2. Who would be involved?
Many leadership theories agree that a leader’s greatest responsibility is to their people. That’s because the position of a leader implies trust. People “follow” because they believe that a leader is taking them somewhere that they couldn’t go on their own.
Leaders have a commitment to the “bottom line” as well as their teams, but it’s a good idea to try to seek a win-win in the process (transformational leadership). For example, if a company is looking to hire for a new role, is it possible to promote an internal candidate (coaching)? If there will be layoffs, will employees still have access to healthcare and wellness perks? Even when the outcome isn’t favorable, a leader who’s invested in their team will seek to minimize impact.
Furthermore, strong leaders communicate early and often. They let group members and stakeholders know what changes are coming down the line and how the team may be affected. This type of leader often earns a high degree of trust and loyalty from their team. People know that even if circumstances look bleak, they have someone looking out for their best interests.
3. What would success look like?
There are many paths to success. A strong leader knows that the first, second, and even third plans may not work out. They focus on the encouragement and empowerment of their team, keeping them energized as they work towards the end goal.
This is where agility is most important. If you have a clear vision of what a successful outcome looks like, and you’re not too attached to how you get there, you have a greater chance of achieving it. The contingent theory emphasizes this type of leader behavior. It helps teams respond quickly under changing conditions to meet the goal.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this leadership style is that it empowers other people within the organization to step up and lead. These leaders manage by delegating responsibility to others. They give their direct reports opportunities to grow even as they work to complete tasks. Individuals on the team grow their communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and other core leadership competencies. Transformational leaders tend to be the most adept at this. They coach their teams “on the field” to improve their skills as they achieve outsized results.
Be the best leader you can be
In order to develop into a successful leader, you don’t necessarily have to memorize every leadership theory. You have to have a clear understanding of what you’re working towards, a sense of responsibility to your team, and willingness to grow.
All of these skills are rooted in self-awareness. Leadership theories are part of what helps us cultivate that awareness. We learn from the example of those around us. Then we internalize and develop based on what we learn. In that way, becoming a leader isn’t an art or a science, but a continuous process of intentional growth.
If you want support in developing leadership skills and understanding what it means to be future-minded, reach out to BetterUp for a demo today.
BetterUp Staff Writer