9 responses to “Leadership Theories”

  1. Thanks for a post clarifying the most common viewpoints. While I acknowledge that great leaders possess certain traits, I think that this one (the traits theory, by itself) is the most constraining – one either is or isn’t a leader, and tough luck to those who aren’t born with the necessary sociability, for example. This, by itself, doesn’t explain those leaders who, while less social are able to guide their organizations to superior performance.

    Each of the other theories seem to be a different (valid) view of looking at leadership success, almost like looking through a prism … each may be the most significant key when helping an individual leader improve his/her performance. Perhaps their skills (e.g., decision process) is insufficient, perhaps they don’t effectively involve their team members, perhaps they are not clarifying the expectations or aligning consequences appropriately. And so on.

    So for those of us who are engaged in assisting leadership growth and development, the key is being aware of the many facets, then identifying the key elements that are most appropriate for the given leader. (And this sounds like another theory in itself – that leadership success is particular to the individual leader – perhaps there is a formal title for this …?)

    Again, thank you.

  2. Steve,

    Nice summary. Thanks.

    So, if there were this many theories concerning a single topic in science, what would that community do?

    Likely design experiments to test the validity of the competing theories for the purpose of determining, or refining, or creating the theory which best explains the observed data.

    So why doesn’t the management community (including the academics) embark on a similar journey?


    p.s. — Of all the theories, I think the “Requisite Organization Theory” rests on the most solid science, but even it doesn’t adequately address all of the observed data :)

  3. Steve,

    A very helpful categorization of the many perspectives out there. Thanks!

    It is unfortunate that executives often have different views of this than the leadership experts attempting to help executives. In my experience, executives view leadership much more from the situational or contingency theory mindsets. Coaches and consultants use a combination of trait, skills, or transformational viewpoints. As a result, the conversation between executive and coach/consultant starts off from a dynamic of misunderstanding (or even mistrust).


    PS Social neuroscience (my area of expertise) actually is “neutral” as it relates to these theories. It could be used as part of any of them.

  4. Steve,

    Nice overview. Though I agree that leadership is complex and dynamic, I take issue with the idea that it is often oversimplified. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. For the practitioner, those actually leading, a simplified approach is best. I’ve got a lot of years of experience as a practitioner and I can testify that whenever various “gurus” introduce ever more complex theories (often just rehashing already accepted theories) it was anything but helpful. When I trained other leaders, I found the best approach was to help them understand, in a simple and basic way, the fundamentals of understanding those they were leading and how to motivate them. Many went on to study leadership in much greater detail, but those fundamentals provided the foundation.

    One reason I take this view is that I see many of these “leadership theories” as really behavioral theories. (some come from behaviorists so I guess that’s logical) Leading is, in one form or another, causing people to do something, so understanding human behavior is important, but that doesn’t make behavioral theory leadership theory.

    Norman makes an interesting point. But, if there were a single leadership theory, how would everyone sell all those books? In fact, I think a start is to understand that most of the theories normally cited at not really theories of leadership but various tools available to help the leader understand one of most important responsibilities; motivating humans. I think the situational leadership model does this about as well as any I’ve seen.


  5. Is it really the manager’s or leader’s job to motivate their direct reports?

    Another view:


    If this perspective seems to make sense, I suggest giving “Executive Leadership” by Elliott Jaques a read.

  6. Norman

    In a perfect world, I suppose a leader would not have to motivate. However, it isn’t a perfect world and so a leader must at least learn what motivates his or her people. I firmly believe that leaders who learn what motivates their people (and that may not be one simple answer) will be more successful than those who don’t. Avoiding a long thesis on the subject of motivation, I’ll just say I’ve seen organizations where good leaders motivate people to excel. Conversely, I’ve seen organizations with bad leaders who can suck the life out of the most highly motivated subordinate.

    By the way, the website you cited seems to have some interesting points, but the oft repeated slogan indicating the only problem is the system is extremely dangerous. It reminds me of a lecture I observed with W. Edwards Deming. The audience was all very highly placed executives. One asked Deming if he really believed that everyone in an organization was doing his best. Deming’s reply was to ask the audience if there was anyone who wasn’t doing their best. He was dead serious too. Reality is that while the system (organization, hierarchy, bureaucracy, etc) may well be a problem, it is seldom if ever the only problem. The hard fact is not everyone is well motivated and leaders do need to find ways to increase employee motivation and, to use the currently popular word, engagement.


  7. I suppose if it was a perfect world, all of the work would be done, and we wouldn’t have a need for any managers or leaders :) Hmmm . . . can you have “fun” without being managed or led?

    Bob, I agree that to the extent a manager can match an individual to work which is of interest to them, and for which they have the ability to do, engagement will increase.

    However, I agree with Michelle’s suggestion that removing the obstacles created by poorly designed systems is a much bigger lever for creating “engagement” than any of the many motivational speeches I’ve sat through 😉



    As for Dr Deming’s question to the group, what was the audience’s response?

    As for myself, I’ve spent most of my working life watching good people trying to do their best . . . despite the system we were working in. Interestingly, most of the “great” people solved this problem by leaving the system to go work somewhere else.

  8. Hi all

    Nice thread on Leadership Theories. Thanks. It certainly is true that some of these “leadership” theories aren’t really theories. At least not particularly original theories. One could argue that most of them are simply the age old nature-nurture debate repackaged. That is, the question of how much of who we are, is learned, and how much is innate?

    I want to respond to the concern that trait theory doesn’t seem to provide for the fact that there are many individuals that don’t possess the “ideal” leadership qualities, but that still are exceptional leaders. I believe that traits, learned skills and knowledge, and beliefs, all come together and intersect in unique ways with the organizational context. I also think that it is incredibly helpful for individuals, and organizations, to know which qualities seem more trait based and which can be developed or learned. Is it not best to have an understanding of what abilities are amenable to improvement and which do not? For instance, there is little debate that most people are born with specific cognitive (aka intellectual) capacities and that it is impossible to increase this basic capacity. This doesn’t mean that a person who possesses what is considered average to below average capacity for conceptual or big picture thinking cannot be an effective leader. But, in my mind, it is clearly to that person’s advantage to be clear about his or her abilities in this area. When there is this awareness, the individual can then put his or her mind to the task of how to excel as leader without that particular area as strength. Often times this means developing relationships with others, be they direct reports, colleagues, etc, that are strong in that particular area. When it comes down to it, the key with regard to traits is for leaders to maximize and leverage their strengths and, if necessary, have the right people or processes to compliment these areas.

    In response to questions of whether leadership gets oversimplified, I agree that there is no reason to ask leaders to become well versed in every theory, approach, or ten easy steps to great leadership. I am actually criticizing, ever so slightly, those “experts” or consultants that view leadership through one very limiting lens. I believe we do a disservice to clients if we aren’t at least moderately versed in the different theoretical grids that seek to explain human behavior. If all we have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.

    I think this is also true with the whole area of motivation. I used to teach a university course on the psychology of motivation. In the course the students would be introduced to different notions of motivation – that is, why people do what they do, and with how much energy. It was revealing for the students to see that there are many different theories of motivation and that there is wide differences of opinion on which are most important. In my mind it was also helpful for the students to hear that different people are motivated by significantly different factors. For instance, what role does personality, such as that measured by the Myers-Briggs play in why people do what they do, and with how much vigor? How much of what motivated people is the desire to avoid pain or increase pleasure? What about, as just discussed, cognitive tendencies? That is, are people wired to think conceptually going to be motivated the same things as those inclined toward detailed analysis? And how does the culture – or cultures – that a person is from influence motivation? What about values, family of origin, early child experiences, religious or faith orientation impact things? My point being, that leadership consultants should think about these possibilities and, without making things to complex, us this knowledge in their work with leaders.


  9. In your study of motivation, did you find that motivation changes as needs are satisfied? This was Maslow’s basis for his Eupsychian Thoery which he never completed. Yes, I still like Maslow and Herzberg! Have you published anything on the link between personality and motivation? I agree with your thoughts on that but haven’t really read much on it. Suggestions?

Translate »