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14 Fascinating Theories from Leadership Studies

This came to my attention from “Best Colleges Online“. It’s a succinct summary of some of the top, historically relevant leadership theories.

Seems to me that every student of leadership today benefits from a decent understanding of earlier theories.

For those readers who are expert, a refresher course. For others, a great primer.

If you’ve never delved into the field of leadership studies as a businessperson or college student, you really should. There are dozens of fascinating theories from the field that can help you become a better leader or at the very least offer insights into the reasons why we act the way we do when leading or being led. While leadership studies is a much broader field than can be addressed in a short article like this one, we’ve pulled together some of the biggest and best theories put forth by a variety of leadership studies academics, providing you with an excellent primer for understanding not only the fundamentals of leadership studies as a discipline but also for being a better employee, leader, or mentor at work and in your personal life.

  1. GREAT MAN THEORY

    Do you believe that some people are just born to lead? That’s the basis behind this early 20th century theory proposed by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle believed that history could largely be explained through the actions of “great men,” individuals who he believed exerted high levels of influence over others through their inborn charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or drive for power. While there may be some truth to Carlyle’s idea that some people are born with characteristics that make them more apt to become leaders, his theory was refuted soundly by Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed that even those predisposed to leadership couldn’t emerge as influential figures without the help of social conditions outside of their control, and that great leaders were more the products of their environments than any particular inborn talents. It’s an interesting issue and one that we still struggle with today when trying to figure out just what drives some into great leadership roles, whether it’s nature, nurture, or some combination of the two.

  2. TRAIT THEORY

    Taking a look at trait theory, you’ll see that it is in many ways related to Great Man Theory when it comes to understanding leadership. In the 1930s, many working in leadership studies believed that the traits of leaders were simply different than those of non-leaders, and that effective leaders were born, not made. A number of studies were done that looked at those in leadership roles, examining their physical, mental, and social characteristics to come up with a list of traits that could be linked to leadership effectiveness. While researchers initially thought there was great promise in this theory, studies would go on to show that there were no universal traits that consistently separated effective leaders from other individuals, though this may have been in part to blame on poor methodology on the part of the researchers. Yet these findings do bring up some interesting points and also showcase just how hard it is to pin down what separates good leaders from bad ones.

  3. PARTICIPATIVE LEADERSHIP THEORY

    The idea of a participative leadership style arises from the work of Dr. Rensis Likert in 1967. Likert proposed several types of leadership styles including exploitative authoritative, benevolent authoritative, consultative, and participative. Participative leaders were those who show great concern for employees and use input and advice from these individuals when making decisions. A similar theory was proposed by Dr. Gary Yukl in 1971, with the leadership style being called delagative rather than participative. Today, the ability to be seen as a participative leader can still be important and those in leadership positions that don’t take the thoughts and feelings of their subordinates into account are rarely regarded as truly great leaders.

  4. LEADER-MEMBER EXCHANGE THEORY

    If you’re going to learn about leadership studies, you’ll need to know about this big theory that has been analyzed and studied extensively by big names in the field like Dansereau, Graen, Haga, and Cashman. This theory was a hot topic in the mid-1970s and takes its roots in the larger social exchange theory, a social psychological perspective that explains social change and stability as a process of negotiated exchanges between parties. It isn’t hard to see how this could apply in the workplace, and that’s just what organizational scholars did, showing that leaders develop different relationships with each subordinate as each party defines their respective roles. The studies also revealed that when leader-member exchanges were of high quality, employees were less likely to leave, had better job attitudes, were more willing to participate, made faster career progress, were promoted more often, and showed greater organizational commitment — all things that any leader should be striving to get out of subordinates, making this one theory any present or future leader should learn more about.

  5. SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP THEORY

    Situational theories of leadership generally propose that leaders choose the best course of action based on variables that change from situation to situation. It was first proposed by Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard, who believed that leaders chose their leadership style based on the maturity or level of the follower, dividing up the necessary leadership behaviors into four different quadrants. These included directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating, in order of those that provide the most supervision and direction to those that require the least. The fundamental lesson of this theory is that there is no one “best” style of leadership, and to truly be effective, leaders have to change and adapt their methods depending on the situation and the person or group they’re working with. Not bad advice, no matter who you’re leading.

  6. CONTINGENCY THEORY OF LEADERSHIP

    If you believe that a given environment determines what leadership strategy is best, then you’ll want to learn more about the Contingency Theory of Leadership. Proposed by Dr. Fred Fiedler, this theory states that the best leadership style isn’t set in stone but varies depending on a given situation, meaning that some leaders simply may not be a good fit for certain environments. Fiedler developed the Least Preferred Coworker Scale as a way to determine which managers would be the best fit for a leadership assignment. In order to determine whether a leader is favorable for a given task, Fiedler examined three factors: the leader-member relationship, the degree of task structure, and the leader’s position power. If all three of these dimensions are high, the leader, and his or her leadership style, is considered a favorable match. For example, a leader with a drill sergeant-like attitude probably isn’t the best choice for an office that requires creative thinking and collaboration.

Read the rest of the list of theories

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