Understanding Leadership Theories

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Some of the most remembered and important individuals in the history of mankind are those that possess the traits of a great leader.  Great leaders inspire those around them to rise up and achieve greatness even in the face of the most daunting challenges.  But what makes the truly great leaders stand out from the rest?  Is it the perfect combination of many attributes together, or is it simply that some people possess an innate ability to take charge of a situation?  I have found that there are ways that any person can become a leader of a group of individuals, but it takes more than a strong strength of will from the individual to become a truly effective leader.  The most important quality that I see in a leader is the ability to get those that follow him or her to believe through and through that the path that they are being led down is the way to reach their eventual goal.  This means meeting the challenge of change head-on. I feel that the most important aspect of becoming a leader is being able to garnish inspiration and hope in those around the leader.  It is through the use of multiple leading theories and techniques that an individual can hope to aspire to become as effective of a leader as possible, and through the proper use of the theories and techniques, while still having some of the intangible qualities, a person can not only aspire but obtain the position of a great leader.

Before one can thoroughly understand the way in which I have personally defined my leadership philosophy, it is important to take note of some of the major theories on leadership that already exist.  There are at least 8 major categories that an individual can be classified within when describing their leadership ability in terms of a strategy that the individual employs to lead their followers: the great man theory, the trait theory, the contingency theory, the situational theory, the behavioral theory, the participative theory, the management theory, and the relationship theory (Cherry).  Each of these leadership theories are defined by the unique and distinct set of characteristics that an individual displays in terms of accomplishing the desired task and getting their followers to believe in their ability to lead.  Though each has its own unique set of defining characteristics, there can be some overlap seen between the different theories, which builds upon the notion that an individual that truly wants to be the most effective leader may want to take aspects of all the different theories and combine them.

The first two leadership theories that are commonly mentioned are linked based on the idea that the leader has some unique, innate traits about him or her that separates them from the rest of society and thrusts them into the role of a great leader.  For these types, leadership is a way of life. The two theories are known as the “great man” theory and the trait theory respectively.  The great man theory operates under the idea that a particular leader is not made but is rather born with the specific intangible attributes that will allow him or her to effectively lead others in the pursuit of a common goal (Cherry).  This theory is especially attractive to the more historical leaders that have been produced throughout history, which are usually defined by such qualities as bravery, strength, or military prowess.  Under the great man theory, the skills that a leader possesses are there from birth and simply manifest themselves over time in the leader’s life.  Similar to this notion is that of the trait theory.  This theory, like the great man theory, builds upon the idea that there are certain aspects of a great leader that an individual is simply born with, however unlike the great man theory, the trait theory operates under the premise of there being certain traits that are common between great leaders throughout history (Cherry).  The main focus of this theory is identifying and linking the most prevalent leader traits that are shared by the different leaders and unifying them the build an effective model for a leader based on the common traits they all posses.  

The next two leadership theories are the contingency and situational theories.  Like the great man and trait theories, these two share some fundamental similarities that define the notion of being an effective leader.  The contingency theory is based upon the notion that an effective leader will depend on not one technique for leading under any circumstance, rather that the individual will employ the necessary technique given the particular environmental factors that are present in a given situation (Cherry).  Similarly, the situation theory is based upon the idea that a leader will alter their leading style based on different factors as well.  Unlike the contingency theory, which is based upon environmental factors that will lead to a leader shifting their leading techniques, the situational theory is based upon the group that the leader is attempting to lead (Cherry).  The way in which a leader will choose to employ certain leading techniques will alter based upon the knowledge and skill level of those that are being led and to what extent the leader realizes the individuals know the subject matter.

The fifth leadership theory is that of the behavioral theory.  This theory is basically the opposite of the great man theory in that it operates under the guise of great leaders being made rather than being born with the necessary traits to lead (Cherry).  This style of leading is based upon the notion that an individual will learn through their own distinct experiences what sort of techniques and modes of being an effective leader are the best to be used on a particular group.  This particular theory basically pushes for the notion that becoming a great leader is something that any individual can accomplish given that they are willing to learn based upon both teaching and observations (Cherry). 

The next leadership theory is known as the participative theory.  This theory works by the leader seeking active input from his or her followers in order to make a decision that is best suited for the continued survival and proliferation of the group’s endeavors  (Cherry).  This theory of leading places a much greater sense of commitment from the group into the foreground as the group of individuals that are being lead will feel that they have an active role in deciding the group’s fate as they are being asked for their opinion and suggestions by the group’s leader.  It is worth noting that the leader in this scenario does not have to act upon the feedback that they receive from the group about the decisions that the group should make and are free to still act in a way that they see as the most fit for the group as a whole.  The leader in this theory still has the right to also decide on whether or not a particular member of the group will have the right to give input at all or not, which provides the notion of authority to the leader nonetheless (Cherry).

The final two leadership theories are that of the management and relationship theories.  These two theories are related in that they both have to do with controlling the group’s oversight of a particular task and inspiring them to move towards a common goal, however the means by which the theories accomplish this ending point varies.  The management theory takes the stance that the leader must establish a means of rewarding those that meet set goals and criteria and punish those that do not meet those goals (Cherry).  This theory is based upon the leader’s authority compared to his or her subordinates and is commonly seen in the business world.  The relationship theory takes into consideration the uniting of the individuals to get them to see the greater good and the reasoning behind why they must accomplish a specific task (Cherry).  Like the management theory, this theory works by having the leader expect each member of a group to complete a specific task, but the leader is more focused on drawing out the potential of the members of their group rather than rewarding and punishing the members that meet or fail to reach the goals set forth.

Based upon these 8 unique management theories, it seems clear to me that there is no one theory that is best suited for the most effective leader.  One of the most important aspects of being a leader is being flexible enough with one’s approach that the leader is able to react to a number of different situations with the necessary calm and demeanor.  This is why, I feel that it is important to take the fundamental aspects of many of the different theories and combine them to form the best leader of all.  For example, even if it is not a trait that an individual was necessarily born with, the most effective leader can be so confident in their own abilities that group they are leading will naturally feel as though they are operating under the great man leadership theory while still maintaining the group dynamic of the participative theory by keeping the members of the group actively involved in the decision making process.  Though the leadership theories are important to consider in identifying the effective leader, there chosen techniques that the leader displays are just as important in become efficient in the role of a leader. 

Daniel Goleman released a famous study in the Harvard Business Review back in the year 2000 which documented the most common leadership styles seen within managers in corporate America.  The study consisted of a three-year study that looked at over 3,000 managing positions with the aims of trying to reveal specific leadership behaviors while also attempting to determine the effect that the leadership styles had on the company and, ultimately, the profitability of the company based upon the manager’s leading style (Goleman, 2000).  The study found that there exist roughly 6 major leadership styles, which are different from the philosophies of leadership because the philosophies are the guidelines that a leader would employ in devising a technique whereas the style of leadership is based upon the execution of the philosophy.  The six styles that Goleman found are: the pacesetting leader, the authoritative leader, the affiliative leader, the coaching leader, the coercive leader, and the democratic leader (Goleman, 2000).  Like the leadership philosophies, the styles of leadership have common traits among them but are separated by several unique differences. 

The first style of leading, known as the pacesetting leader, takes after the name that was given to the particular style, in that the leader takes a lead from the front method of rallying those that are led by the individual.  Under this particular technique, the leader uses themselves as an example for the group to follow ergo setting the pace.  This particular style of leading is of particular effectiveness when the leader is working with a group of individuals that is already highly motivated (Goleman, 2000).  The employment of this technique under circumstances such as these will allow the leader to see quick, fast, and reliable results from those that they are leading.  However, this style has one major drawback to it as well.  Overusing this technique can result in negative performances from the group because they will sometimes feel as though they are being overwhelmed and kept in a state of diminished innovation (Goleman, 2000).

The second style of leading goes by the name of authoritative leadership.  This leadership style is best described as an individual taking control of a group and creating an environment where the group is working towards a common vision with special emphasis placed on the end goals over the means by which they are achieved (Goleman, 2000).  Studies have shown that the employment of this particular style of leadership yields the greatest output of an increase in the working climate based on the notion that the authoritative leader will make individuals, even if at a subconscious level, fall in line with the way the leader runs the group and attempt to mimic the decisions and behaviors of the leader (Ackley).   The major drawback to implementing this style of leadership comes from the strengths of the particular group that the leader is working within.  If the individuals that the leader is working with happen to have a better understanding of the subject that the leader is attempting to take charge of, then it is more than less likely that the group will have to deal with frustration with dealing with a leader that is too overbearing while not being a master of the subject themselves.

The third style of leading is known as the affiliative leader.  This type of leading style works when the leader creates a series of bonds that will unite those that are being led to a particular task (Goleman, 2000).  This type of leading is very useful when attempting to have the group that is being lead recover from a stressful event of some kind as its garners a feeling of belonging and unity within the group.  At the same time however, it should be noted that an overbearing sense of nurture can lead to a decrease in overall performance as the group can become dependent on the praise that is provided by the leader (Goleman, 2000).  The basic statement that can be associated with this style of leading is, “people come first,” (Goleman, 2000).  

Another style of leading that can be associated with being an effective leader is the organizational coaching style.  This style is based upon the idea of building up the individuals that are being led so that they are as strong as possible for the long-term (Goleman, 2000).  This style of leading is based upon the leader being able to point out, in a constructive manner, the flaws hat exist in the way in which an employee carries out a specific task and then instructing him or her on the proper way to accomplish that task.  This major issue with this style of leading comes in two major aspects.  First, if the individual is unwilling to accept the changes that the coaching leader is suggesting, then they will not find leading technique as effective.  Also, if the leader is not proficient at the specific task, then the way in which the group will carry out his or her instructions will result in a flawed outcome that can hinder the overall progress of the group.

The fifth found style of leading is seen in what is known as the coercive leading style.  This style is based upon the notion that the leader’s orders will be carried out immediately and without question and is therefore very effective in times where rapid, immediate response is necessary such as during a crisis (Goleman, 2000).  Though this style of leadership is quite effective at getting tasks accomplished quickly, it is usually problematic to employ as it tends to make individuals feel both alienated and stifled in terms of both flexibility and inventiveness because of the harsh nature of the way in which a leader will require the carry out of actions.  This style of leading is, however, very effective at dealing with a problematic member of  team where all other options are exhausted because of the “do what I tell you,” nature that this style of leadership entails (Goleman, 2000).

The final technique of leadership that the study reported on is known as the democratic leader.  Under this style of leadership, the leader of a group will steer the group into a unified decision on how to carry on based on specific circumstances (Goleman, 2000).  The style of leadership is particularly effective at getting individuals to buy into the idea that the leader is working for the better portion of the group and helps to gain support for the leader’s actions because the group will feel as though it has power over the actions of what the group decides to carry out on.  The major draw back of this leadership style comes from the time it takes to arrive at any major decision.  Individuals under this leadership style can sometimes spend a great deal of time arguing and debating what is the best means for carrying out an action and must sacrifice time to arrive at the decision.  It is therefore not necessarily the best style for leadership when time is of significant importance, such as during a state of crisis (Goleman, 2000).  

Similarly, to the leadership philosophies, I would not say that one particular technique is the best for a leader to employ in a given situation.  My leadership philosophy is, therefore, based upon the notion that the most effective leader will take the desirable traits from each style and combine them to be even more effective of a leader o the people.  The best leaders of all will be flexible enough to alter their styles based upon the situation, based on both environmental factors such as time and the group they are working with.  By combining the necessary portions of each leading style, the most effective leader will never be caught unprepared for a given situation.  This is one of the many personality traits that I associate with the great leaders of the world.   

It is important to realize just what sort of personality traits are the most desired for the effective leader model. For example, is the leadership directive or supportive? From my point of view, the most important traits that leaders will posses are the following: vision, communication skills, the ability to inspire others, drive to succeed, and passion.  It is essential that the potential leader have a vision on where he or she is leading those that follow him or her.  “A vision needs to be abstract enough to encourage people to imagine it but concrete enough for followers to see it, understand it and be willing to climb onboard to fulfill it,” (Javitch, 2009).  To go along with this vision that a leader needs to have, it is also essential that he or she be able to communicate to a superior level with their subordinates so that those that follow will have the ability to understand not only where they are going by following the leader but how they will get there during the journey.  To combat the challenges that will be faced in accomplishing the goals set out, a leader must be able to inspire the hope of others throughout the processes laid down in front of them during the time it takes to accomplish their goals.  Not only does the leader need to be able to inspire the employees in times of challenge but it is also important that he or she is constantly striving to set higher and higher goals for the entire group to achieve.  “When the boss is seen as someone who works to attain increasingly higher goals, employees will be impressed and more willing to mirror that behavior,” (Javitch, 2009).  Finally, the leader must be passionate about what they are doing.  This is almost the most desirable trait because it shows that the leader cares about what the group is doing, and in a sense, it lays the foundation for many of the other traits to build up the credibility and leadership potential of the individual as a whole. 

There is one very important distinction that must be made when speaking about the characteristics and importance of leadership philosophies, styles, and traits.  That is, the difference between leadership and management.  Though the two, on the surface, appear quite similar, there are some very important distinctions that should be noted so that an individual that strives to become a great leader will appear to be more than just a manager.  In the most general sense, the major difference between managing and leading can be summarized by stating that a leader has more of a responsibility as they are the ones that set the goals and directions of a group whereas a manager is simply concerned with arriving at a predetermined goal in the most efficient way as possible (Scouller & Chapman, 2012).  It is important to realize that to be a great leader, an individual must go beyond simply getting individuals to reach a goal efficiently and that they must push those around them to want to strive to go beyond the original goals and achieve higher, more lofty achievements.  

What has been shown is the importance of several key aspects that, when combined in the right way, serve as a building block for the most effective leader possible.  As noted by Richard L. Daft, there is no one personality type that is fundamentally better for a leader to possess, and that what a leader must be able to do is speak up and make those around him or her strive for greatness (Daft, 2011).  By taking from the above-mentioned philosophies, leadership styles, and personality traits, an individual can become a truly great leader.  In essence, my leadership philosophy is a combination of all of the above mentioned to a certain extent.  The personality traits, leading styles, and philosophies are all important for a leader to have, but there is one more attribute that is what truly sets apart a good leader from a great one: the ability to adapt and know when to employ which tactic.  A great leader will know that under certain situations it is more helpful to lead in different manners.  By adapting to the situation as it is needed, the leader will show that not only are they fit to lead but also that they possess the foresight and judgment to become the most effective leader under any circumstance.  In short, my leadership philosophy comes down to two aspects: being prepared and able to change tactics at a moment’s notice.      


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Daft, R. L. (2011). The leadership experience. (5th ed.). Mason South-Western College: Cengage Learning 

Goleman, D. (2000) Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, doi: R00204-PDF-ENG

Javitch, D. (2009, Dec 09). Characteristics of superior leaders. Entrepreneur , Retrieved from http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/204248

Scouller, J., & Chapman, A. (2012). Leadership theories: Leadership models, philosophies, styles, definitions, descriptions, terminology. Business Balls, Retrieved from http://www.businessballs.com/leadership-theories.htm