Have you ever wondered what makes a leader great? Is it their innate ability to command the attention of a room — a learned skill which has taken dedication to master — or is it simply their natural charisma that enables them to build rapport and lead effectively? Successful businesses understand the true value of leadership theories and how they help effective leaders to achieve their objectives, drive change, and manage their teams to perform well and deliver results consistently.

With so much of the spotlight being on the ability to lead, it’s important to understand the seven key theories of leadership. In this blog post, we explore these theories to help you to understand the psychology of successful leaders, potentially identify those qualities in yourself or others on your team, and provide you with key insights on how it’s possible to refine each style of leadership.

A closer look at the different leadership theories

Leadership theories have been developed over decades, stemming from the results of numerous studies focused on the psychology of successful leaders. These theories try to explain and offer a better understanding of what a person must do to enhance their leadership style — from their traits and daily behaviours, through to developing characteristics that make them an exceptional leader.

Great leaders often possess a skill set that has taken time, commitment, and effort to develop. One of the signs of an excellent leader is their ability to bring out the best in people —  whether in a team setting, in a personal capacity, or simply through general interactions.

Leadership theories offer a real-world glimpse into how and why certain individuals become outstanding leaders. Using this to our advantage, we can identify common traits we share with brilliant leaders and find practical ways to develop ourselves into respected authorities within a business.

Below we look at the seven main theories of leadership.

1. ‘Great man’ theory

The ‘great man theory’ is the theory that some are born to lead. This theory suggests that some people have an inherent ability to take charge of a situation without specific training or development to prepare them.

Their charisma, personal qualities, and character traits feed into this natural ability to lead without as much of a need for skill-refining or development as others.

In the modern world, it’s perhaps more correct to refer to the theory as the ‘great person’ theory; the terminology originated in the military, which may or may not explain the original name for the theory.

Some may be born with this competitive advantage, but strategic leadership courses are a superb way to build further on this already-impressive skill set.

2. Contingency theory

The contingency theory suggests that no single leadership approach applies to all situations. It explores how variables can influence any situation, and that leaders must be able to adapt and improvise their approach to successfully navigate certain situations. 

One way to improve your own contingent leadership qualities is by book a place on an agile project leadership programme. These programmes help people discover practical, dynamic, and simple ways to lead people and projects in an ever-changing landscape.

3. Behavioural theory

The behavioural theory —  as the name suggests —  places more emphasis on the behavioural patterns of leaders rather than on the idea of inherent ability or learned skill. Under this theory,  it’s possible for a leader to improve their leadership habits over time through practice. As the practice becomes a habit, the leader acquires new skills and can apply them to everyday situations, which fosters effective leadership. 

Strategic leadership courses and other relevant professional development courses can play an important part in transforming a good leader into a great one — through the application of skills and knowledge.  They fit in particular well under the behavioural theory.

4. Transformational theory

The transformational leadership theory is based on the notion that positive, constructive relationships between managers and their team members lead to the ‘next generation’ of great leaders. 

It is also sometimes referred to as the ‘relationship theory’, and emphasises that when an aspiring leader has a mentor with whom they share their ideas and strategies, they can enhance their own skill sets and qualities through ‘seeing it in action.’

Transformational leaders inspire teams by leading from the front. They inspire through their actions, not simply through direction. They set a precedent for their teams by holding themselves personally accountable to the same high standards they expect of others.

Numerous courses allow transformational leaders to improve their ability to lead by example. After all, a transformational leader understands the need for continuous professional development to get ahead and stay ahead.

5. Situational theory

The situational leadership theory suggests that the leadership style depends on the immediate situation. Somewhat similar to the ‘contingency theory,’ this theory values the ability of leaders to tailor their leadership strategy to the situation or circumstance at hand. The situational leader will assess variables that affect the outcome of a situation and pivot their approach to resolving the situation. 

This is an analysis-driven approach to leading change.  Refining your situational leadership skills is as much of a theory as it is a learned task.

6. Transactional theory

Transactional leadership revolves around the practice of identifying and rewarding good leadership, while ‘punishing’ poor leadership. Some call it the ‘management theory.’

Transactional leadership is a motivational tool and leaders in many organisations employ it. However, for several reasons, it’s sometimes unsuitable. Some consider it counter-productive and believe it places too much of a focus on the reward instead of on the overall positive impact effective leadership can have.

7. Trait theory

The trait theory is similar to the ‘great man’ theory in so far as it looks at the traits, qualities, and characteristics of successful leaders. The trait theory tries to identify similar qualities in aspiring leaders when compared to successful leaders; these traits can be physical and intellectual. This theory identifies the natural leadership ability of a person, based on their traits only. 

This can be a terrific way to identify people within a team who can drive transformational change. Professional development courses focused on leadership development will refine the skills of potential leaders.

Leadership management courses with INPD

Regardless of your inherent leadership qualities, or unmatched ambition to become an exceptional leader, professional development is one of the most practical, effective ways to improve leadership skills in the workplace.

Our level 5 leadership & management course is the ideal way to develop and expand your understanding of leadership in any organisation. This course uses a range of theories to challenge the preconceptions of current leadership practices and will suit anyone in a management position who works with teams of people or stakeholders.

For a list of our upcoming leadership courses, click here. 

We’re committed to helping great leaders develop their careers. Contact our team today to find out more about our courses, programmes, and virtual lessons.


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