7 Theories of Leadership And Why They Matter

Various theories of leadership have long been of interest to those who want to better understand them or find “short-cuts” to achieve them. They have been studied by everyone from industrialists to politicians to academics. Yet, there have been almost as many theories of leadership as there have been people studying them. Find out how the theories have developed over generations.

7 Theories of Leadership and Why They Matter

Leadership Theory

What is leadership theory? Leadership is the ability of an individual to influence a group of people toward the achievement of a group goal. The theories surrounding leadership attempt to define what creates good leaders.

What are transformational theories of leadership? What are the main limitations of behavioral theories of leadership? Take a look at these 7 theories of leadership, the era in which they achieved peak popularity and the description of each theory involved.

1. The Great Man Theory

This theory took hold in the mid-1800’s and was pretty straightforward. The theory states leaders are born and not made and only men can be leaders. Developed by writer Thomas Carlyle, the theory proposes that great leaders would “rise to the occasion” when faced with certain situations. Carlyle wrote a book on the subject in which he compared various great leaders. Although discussed for a couple of decades, the theory waned in popularity as others, like English philosopher Herbert Spencer who dismissed the theory. He stated instead that leaders were more likely a product of their times and social situations.

2. Trait Theory of Leadership

In the late 1920’s and through the 1930’s, the Trait Theory of leadership began to take hold. The central idea of this theory is that leaders can both be born or made. It went on to say a particular combination of mental, physical and social traits could create leaders. Some of the traits considered included creativity, intelligence, sense of duty, and more. An American Psychologist by the name of Gordon Allport studied the theory but study samples were small. The “leaders” used in the study had low leadership roles and their characteristics and impact on leadership never fully connected.

3. Behavioral Theories of Leadership

In the 1940’s, Behavioral Theories of Leadership began to replace the Trait Theory. The new series of theories focused on how a person’s behavior affected their leadership abilities as opposed to their traits. Additionally, leaders could be conditioned into becoming leaders. It was relatively radical to believe that, in essence, leaders could be made, not born. This theory divided leaders into two broad categories; task focused and people focused individuals. But, one of the main limitations of the theory is it never fully explored the impact a leader’s motivation has on a group. Nevertheless, the theory remained popular throughout the 1950’s.

4. Contingency Leadership Theories

leadership style theory | Contingency Leadership Theories | Theories of Leadership And Why They Matter

In the 1960’s, the theory of not having one single way to leadership became popular. This became known as the Contingency Theory. According to this theory, leadership depends on certain situations and certain places, and that people react differently to those different situations. In other words, a leader in one set of circumstances may not step forward as a leader in another set of circumstances. Likewise, different circumstances may require different leadership qualities. This theory is deeply rooted in the fact that leaders will often only lead when they are assured people will follow. There are at least a half-dozen sub-theories based on Contingency Theories.

5. Transactional Leadership Theory

This theory became popular in the 1970’s. It says that leaders and followers work best when a transaction takes place between them. Leaders become more effective when they can reward and/or punish followers depending on certain tasks being carried out. This is best seen in a work environment when a leader carries out the wishes of a company and also encourages his staff to accomplish the same. This theory is based on the human desire for pleasure and need to avoid pain. The Leader-member Exchange (LMX) theory closely relates to this theory.

6. Transformational Leadership Theories

This theory emerged in the 1970’s, suggesting that effective leadership starts on a much more personal level between individuals. According to this theory, leadership is built on trust. Furthermore, when followers have a great deal of trust in a leader, they are much more likely to perform. In other words, instead of the leader, the followers transform instead. They transform through the inspiration and qualities of their leader. These are also known as Relationship Theories.

7. Participative Leadership Theory

This theory encourages participation and input from the group. When the group participates in decisions, they become more invested in the positive outcome of those decisions. In turn, they perform accordingly. It is up to the leader to encourage active participation from the group while still maintaining the ability to decide on which suggestions to implement.


Which one of the theories of leadership is the best? Learn how to identify that with the video from David Dunaetz below:

Many institutes use the seven theories of leadership above to create management programs today. However, many programs pull useful elements from multiple theories. They do not focus on just one. These theories then provide a leadership “toolbox” from which to pick and choose. Knowing all the tools you have available can help you reach higher levels of leadership abilities.

Knowing which theories of leadership are the most effective can help you bring your team closer towards reaching your goal. You may stick to one theory or consolidate them to come up with a style that works. Try it for yourself and share your experience below.

Up Next: Decision Making – Academy Lessons

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