Leadership is both an art and a science. While there’s nothing like building your leadership skills in practice, there are core leadership theories every leader should know about.
Basing your leadership approach on tried-and-tested theories has a few benefits, according to Omer Usanmaz, CEO and co-founder of Qooper Mentoring & Learning Software, a tech solution that helps companies run mentorship, coaching, and training programs. You can learn from the experiences of others instead of taking a shot in the dark, you develop a more holistic view of leadership, you discover your own leadership style, and you gain a better understanding of the needs of your team.
“By being open to new ideas, leaders can learn from their mistakes and improve upon their successes,” says Unsanmaz. “Testing leadership theories can help you build a strong team because it gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. It can also help you better understand your own leadership style and how it affects those around you. By trying out different theories, you can find the ones that work best for your team and continue to build on that success.”
A research paper titled “Making Sense of Theories of Leadership for Capacity Building” and published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine explored some of the most prominent leadership models and grouped them in five categories: trait-based, behavioral ideals, situational/contingency, functional, and integrated psychological. Here’s more about each one of them so you can broaden your leadership horizons.
Core types of leadership theories
Trait-based leadership theories are all about identifying the traits that make certain leaders succeed. “The theory is based on the idea that a leader must possess certain qualities, such as intelligence, charisma, and drive, to be successful,” says Unsanmaz. “This theory can help leaders understand what qualities they need to develop to succeed.”
From strong communication to strategic thinking, use this theory to study the traits of successful leaders and cultivate them in yourself. Lean on the existing leadership traits that come naturally to you when working with your team.
2. Behavioral ideals
Behavioral ideal leadership models focus on the behaviors of outstanding leaders as a predictor of success. “The theory is based on the idea that a leader’s actions speak louder than words, and that a leader’s behavior can be used to influence and inspire followers,” explains Unsanmaz. To put this into practice, aim to become more aware of your behaviors and how they affect your team, and choose behaviors that yield positive results. For example, you may realize that when you take the time to give your team specific feedback, performance increases. Or that when you celebrate wins, morale improves.
Situational/contingency leadership theories are all about taking context into consideration – the best leaders read situations and tailor their approach accordingly.
“In this theory, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership; instead, a leader must be adaptable and adjust their style to fit the situation. This theory can be helpful for leaders to know about because it can help them know when and how to adjust their leadership style for maximum effectiveness,” according to Unsanmaz.
Examples of using situational/contingency leadership models in action include adapting your management style to different individuals on your team or recognizing that you need to lead with more empathy in a time of crisis.
“Functional leadership models focus on what the leader has to do. Unlike the behavioral ideals approach, these neither suggest ideal ways of behaving nor match behaviors to circumstances. Instead, these models focus on the areas that a leader needs to be most effective,” wrote the researchers behind “Making Sense of Theories of Leadership for Capacity Building.”
A notable example of this is the Action Centered Leadership (or “Three Circles Model”) tool articulated by leadership expert John Adair. It breaks down the core actions you need to take as a leader in three areas: task (what you do to achieve a goal), team (what you do to encourage effective teamwork), and individual (what you do to cater to team member’s unique needs).
5. Integrated psychological
Integrated psychological leadership theories include a mix of all of the models listed above, but also consider a leader’s inner psychology as a key driver of success.
The “Three Levels of Leadership” model, formulated by James Scouller, explores this new area of the science of leadership – the three levels consist of public, private and personal leadership. The first two are about how you deal with your team on a group or one-on-one level. The third one is about how you deal with yourself.
Personal leadership touches upon your self-mastery as a leader. Things like your level of emotional intelligence and presence are part of it. To work on your personal leadership, consider hiring a coach who can help you develop an awareness of blind spots and support your self-development.