Leadership Theories, Styles and Approaches

Understanding Leadership
Leadership Theories, Styles and Approaches

Leaders seek to influence the actions, beliefs and the feelings of others. 

This is a complex process: effective leadership requires the leader’s qualities and skills to connect with people and their needs as well as the needs of the leadership situation.

This complexity is reflected in the evolution of leadership theory over the past 80 years.  Early leadership theories focused on the qualities and behaviour of successful leaders. 

Leadership theory evolved with greater understanding of the:

  • Needs and expectations of people at work;
  • Impact of different leadership styles on followers and how the attitudes, behaviour and competence of followers impact leaders; and the
  • Effectiveness of different leadership styles in different situations.

Later leadership theories recognise the needs of modern employees.  Today’s leaders need to understand the increased expectations of their people to be consulted and involved in decision-making, and to have the autonomy to achieve objectives in the way they see as most effective.

The main approaches to leadership theory are:

The Qualities or Traits approach: leaders are born, not made; leadership consists of certain inherited personality traits or qualities.   

The Functional or Group approach:  leadership can be learned and developed.  Focuses on the accountabilities, responsibilities and functions of the leader and the nature of the group. Examines how the leader’s behaviour affects and is affected by the group of followers.

  • One of the key theories of the functional approach is Adair's Action-Centred Leadership. This approach focuses on what leaders do and the need to balance the needs of the individual, the task and the team.


Behavioural styles approach:  focuses on the behaviour of people in leadership positions, the importance of leadership style and how it influences group performance.


Styles of leadership:  focuses on leadership styles and how they impact those being led.  The premise is that subordinates are more likely to work effectively for managers who adopt a certain style of leadership than others:

  • Lewin defined three basic styles of leadership: autocratic (or authoritarian), democratic, laissez-faire style. 
  • Belbin defined two diverging styles of leadership: the Solo Leader and the Team Leader.
  • Tannenbaum and Schmidt presented a continuum of leadership styles based on the degree of authority exercised by the manager and the degree of autonomy available to followers in making decisions. 


Situational approach and Contingency Models:  the situation itself determines the leadership style that will be most effective and no single style of leadership is appropriate for all situations.

Major leadership contingency models include:


Transformational and transactional leadership:  An approach that looks at two levels of leadership:

  • Transactional:  appeals to the self-interest of followers to achieve organizational goals and is based on the leader’s position of authority in the structure.
  • Transformational leadership takes a further step: it creates a vision for transforming the performance of the organization and appeals to the higher ideals and the values of the organization’s people to make it happen.  People are motivated by more than just their own self-interest, and they are motivated to give more effort than what transactional leadership alone can achieve. 
  • Transformational leadership is viewed as an extension of transactional, rather than an alternative to it.


Inspirational or charismatic leadership:  is based on the personal qualities or charisma of the leader.  These leaders are seen as having a strong vision and sense of mission and arouse strong emotions in followers.

Power:  leadership influence is determined by the source and type of power held by the leader.  This section overviews the theories of the key writers on power, including:  French and Raven, Etzioni’s Typology, Fincham’s Analysis and Kipnis et al Studies.


Return to Leadership

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Go to Leadership Competency Frameworks


Related topics:

What is Leadership?


Team Motivation

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