Leadership Theories: Why Are Some Leaders More Successful?

September 25, 2019
Why are some leaders successful and others aren't? What makes some people excel in leadership roles? In this article, we'll analyze the main leadership theories and try to answer these and other questions.

There’s no magic combination of characteristics and qualities that will turn someone into a good leader. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some attributes that will make success more likely. Nor does it mean that you can’t learn to be a more effective leader. In order to understand this more fully, you need to become more familiar with the different approaches to leadership, in order to use the right approach for any given situation. One way to do this is to learn more about the main leadership theories.

Leadership theories seek to explain how and why certain people become leaders. These theories tend to focus on leaders’ characteristics. However, some try to identify the approaches and attitudes that people can adopt in order to improve their own leadership skills in different situations.

Early debates about leadership psychology generally suggested that such skills were simply abilities people were born with. Some more recent leadership theories propose that possessing certain traits can help people become natural leaders but that experience and other factors also play an important role.

Leadership theories aim to explain what’s behind the process of becoming a leader.

Leadership theories

As the interest in different types of leadership and its consequences has increased, several leadership theories have been introduced. They seek to explain exactly how and why certain people become great leaders.

People have been interested in leadership throughout history. However, the emergence of several leadership theories has been a relatively recent occurrence, dating back to the first half of the twentieth century.

Early leadership theories focused on what qualities stood out between leaders and followers, while subsequent leadership theories analyzed other variables, such as situations and skill levels.

A leader with his team.

Theories of the “Great Man”

According to this theory, great leaders are simply born with the necessary internal characteristics, such as charisma, confidence, intelligence, and social skills.

These theories assume that leadership capacity is inherent and that great leaders are born, not made. People who defend this theory often describe great leaders as heroic, mythical and destined to occupy a leadership position.

The term “Great Man” was used because, at the time of the emergence of these theories, originally proposed by historian Thomas Carlyle, leadership was considered primarily a masculine quality, especially in terms of military leadership. These theories suggest that people really can’t learn how to become strong leaders and that they’re born with the innate ability to do so.

Trait theories

Trait theories are similar to Great Man theories. They assume that people inherit certain qualities and traits that make them more suitable for leadership.

Trait theories observe personality traits and behavior patterns that contribute to leadership in great leaders, and which many of them share.

However, the problem here is that people with similar traits may end up being totally different leaders. In some cases, one can become a leader, while the other remains a follower, regardless of the traits they have in common.

Contingency theories

Contingency theories emphasize leadership styles that depend on the particular situations the leaders find themselves in. They focus on specific factors related to their surroundings that can determine which particular leadership style is most appropriate for each situation.

According to this theory, no one leadership style is best for all situations. Leadership researchers White and Hodgson suggest that, in truly effective leadership, not only the leader’s qualities are key. They say that it’s about achieving a balance between behavior, needs, and context.

These theories put forward the idea that good leaders are able to assess their followers’ needs, take stock of the situation, and then adjust their approach and actions. Success depends on a number of factors, including leadership style, the type of followers, and other aspects of the situation as a whole.

Situational theories

Situational theories, in the same way as contingency theories, see leaders adapt to the situation they’re in. The difference is that the leader is seen to change their leadership style according to the changing situation.

Situational theories take into account the change in the leader’s motivation, as well as their followers’ abilities. The leader can change their opinion about their followers, their situation, and their mental and emotional state. All these factors contribute to the decisions the leader will take.

In addition to this, situational theories propose that leaders choose the best course of action based on different situational factors. Different leadership styles may be more appropriate for certain types of decision-making.

A representation of leadership theories.

Behavioral theories

With behavioral theories, the belief is that leaders are formed or created, regardless of whether they are born with one characteristic or another. According to this theory, people can learn to be leaders through teaching and observation. Regarding general behavior and qualities, its proponents believe that leadership can also be learned and developed.

Participative theories

Participative leadership theories suggest that the ideal leadership style is one that takes into account the role that others can play. The inclusion of others in the leader’s decision-making process is vital in participatory leadership theories. Good leaders actively seek other people’s contribution.

This process means that leaders would involve those they’re leading in their actions and decision-making. A good leader would be the one who’s able to make them feel valued, in addition to having some influence on the decisions made. This feeling of being a real part of something important would make the followers feel more committed to the process.

Management or transactional theories

Management theories, also known as transactional theories, focus on the role of supervision, organization, and group performance. These theories base leadership on a system of rewards and punishments. There’s a system in place in which the leaders manage individuals’ performances. Success is rewarded and failures are punished.

This is the most common form of leadership. The role of the leader is to manage the followers’ expectations and adapt them to the group’s objectives. Basically, the leader would be a manager of both people and resources.

A female leader with her team.

Relationship or transformational theories

Relationship theories, also known as transformational theories, focus on the connections formed between leaders and their followers. This approach not only focuses on the performance of the group as a whole. It’s also interested in how each member of the group can develop their full potential.

Transformational leaders motivate and inspire people by managing and aligning two interests: the group and the individual. Moreover, for them, the definition of the objective is as important as the means and the investment necessary to achieve them.

The leader motivates and inspires, helping the followers take on the best role for them. They emphasize that the way of playing the role is vital for the end result. The relationship and connection between a leader and their followers is the main focus. However, they won’t neglect the respect for ethics and the individual care of each follower or worker.