7 Leadership Theories For Career Growth

Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 4 December 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Leadership is a desired quality for any employee. Knowledge of different leadership theories helps you become a more effective leader in the workplace. These theories are helpful if your job role requires constant management and collaboration with others. Apart from the workplace, such theories help interviewers assess your leadership skills and help them understand whether you are the best fit for their organisation or not.

In this article, we discuss 7 leadership theories and how each can help you excel at your job.

Related: What Is Organisational Behaviour? (Examples And Advantages)

Different Leadership Theories

These theories are an explanation of why and how certain people become a leader in the workplace. These theories primarily focus on the behaviour and traits you can adopt to enhance your leadership skills and capabilities. Here are 7 leadership theories that can help you become an effective leader:

Related: Leadership Skills: Definitions and Examples

The great man theory

One of the earliest leadership theories assumes that leadership traits are intrinsic, which means leaders are born and not made or trained. According to this theory, a leader possesses certain inborn qualities like:

  • Charm

  • Judgement

  • Intelligence

  • Courage

  • Aggressiveness

  • Persuasion

This theory highlights that people cannot learn to become powerful leaders. It is something you are either born with or born without. As these skills are natural, you cannot acquire them or get trained on them. The theory also contends that these leadership traits are stable over time and remain the same over groups, irrespective of where such leaders work. Another assumption that this leadership theory revolves around is that great leaders arise when the need for them arises.

The trait theory

The trait theory of leadership is an extension of the great man theory and based on the concept that influential leaders possess specific behavioural traits and characteristics. These traits help them become influential leaders in a wide variety of contexts. Furthermore, it advocates that a person's natural abilities help them become more effective leaders than others. Successful leaders have interests and traits that differ significantly from people who are not leaders. The primary behavioural traits of an effective leader are:

  • Emotional stability

  • Acceptance of responsibility

  • Competence

  • Understanding challenges

  • Action-oriented thinking

  • Motivation skills

  • Communication skills

  • Courage and adaptability

  • Confident decision-making

With this leadership theory, you get to know about your strengths and weaknesses. You can then work on your weaknesses to improve yourself. Many organisations use the trait theory to choose the best candidate for a leadership role.

Related: Top Qualities of an Outstanding Leader

The behavioural theory

This theory explains that a person's environment is responsible for their leadership qualities. Effective leadership results from different learned skills. Contrary to the great man theory, the behavioural theory assumes that leaders are made and trained, not born. In short, natural attributes do not contribute to a leader's success because it is the behaviour that drives leadership qualities. Through proper training and teaching, anyone can become a leader.

The theory advocates that leaders require to be self-aware of their behaviour to increase their team's productivity and morale. This theory recognises certain styles of leadership based on which it categorises leaders into:

  • Task-oriented leaders

  • People-oriented leaders

  • Indifferent leaders

  • Participative leaders

  • Dictatorial leaders

  • Status-quo leaders

  • Sound leaders

  • Opportunistic leaders

  • Paternalistic leaders

  • Country club leaders

With the behavioural theory, it becomes easy to evaluate the leadership style of project managers, team leaders or any other professional leader.

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles

The management theory or transactional theory

The transactional theory came into existence during the Industrial Revolution for improving the productivity of businesses. It is a style of management that highlights the importance of hierarchy for improving efficiency in the workplace. Such leaders value structure and use their disciplinary power to motivate employees to excel in the workplace. According to this theory, employees get rewards for accomplishing their assigned goals. The theory also assumes that employees are required to obey the orders of the managers.

Managers displaying transactional leadership monitor the employees and ensure they receive a reward for accomplishing their goals and reprimand them for not fulfilling their professional goals. However, these leaders are not the catalyst that works for the growth of a company. Instead, they focus on enforcing the company's rules and expectations so that things work as planned.

In transactional leadership, leaders:

  • Focus on short-term goals

  • Favour structured procedures and policies

  • Oppose changes

  • Discourage independent thinking

  • Emphasise on self-interest

  • Reward performance

Transactional leadership is effective in situations where you have clearly defined problems and the primary aim is to accomplish or complete a task.

Related: Management Skills: Definition and Examples

The transformational theory

The transformational theory of leadership explains that the connection between leaders and employees can positively change the organisation. According to this leadership theory, leaders motivate employees to perform beyond their capabilities. Leaders create a vision for the employees and encourage them to achieve it.

Transformational leaders inspire and boost worker morale, which helps them excel at the workplace. These leaders believe in leading by example and motivate employees by their actions instead of words.

In transformational leadership, leaders:

  • Self-manage

  • Lead by example

  • Give importance to communication

  • Have a proactive work approach

  • Encourage employee development

  • Are open to new ideas

  • Take risks and make tough decisions

Unlike transactional leaders, transformational leaders prioritise failing processes and group employees who work well together to achieve common business goals. Also, these leaders give preference to the needs of the employees and organisation before their needs.

Related: Motivation Theories (Definition, Types And Examples)

The contingency theory

The contingency theory postulates that there is no single method or way of leading an organisation. External and internal factors play a key role in deciding the best way to lead an organisation to success. In short, the contingency theory states that the right leader is required to match the right situation.

According to the contingency theory, the following factors affect the leadership style:

  • Management style

  • Work pace

  • Organisational culture and policies

  • Employees' morale

  • The maturity level of employees

  • Relationship between employees or team members

  • Organisational goals and objectives

  • Work environment and schedule

It is the leader who decides the management method to help an organisation achieve the goals in a given circumstance.

This theory assumes that leaders, whether or not successful, are dependent on situations. The theory elaborates that irrespective of a leader's success rate, they would always face challenging circumstances. It stresses that the leaders understand that their success is partially attributed to the circumstances in addition to their skills.

Related: Leadership Roles (With Examples And Functions Of Leadership)

The situational theory

Like the contingency theory, this theory stresses the importance of situations and believes that a leader is required to adapt to the changing situations to accomplish goals and make decisions. These leaders can adapt their leadership styles based on the competency and commitment level of the employees in their team.

According to situational theory, situational leaders:

  • Establish a relationship with employees

  • Motivate employees

  • Recognise situations that need adapting to different leadership styles

  • Develop workgroups and teams

Also, the theory identifies four different leadership styles:

  • Telling: Leaders give direction and tell employees what and how to accomplish.

  • Selling: Leaders sell their ideas or concepts to the team.

  • Participating: Leaders empower the employees to participate and play an active role in giving ideas for solving the problem and making decisions.

  • Delegating: Leaders limit their participation and delegate most of the responsibilities to the team. These leaders are always available for consultation but leave the decision-making to the team.

The theory outlines some critical qualities of a situational leader, including problem-solving skills, trust, flexibility, insightfulness and coaching.

Related: How To Demonstrate Leadership Skills At Work: A Guide

Why Are Leadership Theories Important In The Workplace?

Learning leadership theories helps you improve skills that are essential for becoming an effective and influential leader. At your workplace, you would face situations that might test your leadership skills. Using these theories, you can understand what leadership style you are more likely to follow. It helps you evaluate your skills and become a better leader for your team.

To lead their team to success, managers and team leaders may be required to adapt their leadership styles. Some theories may work well in certain circumstances.

For example, a finance project manager finds it easier to communicate in Hindi than English. So, he usually has a conversation with his team members in Hindi to explain the task and answer their queries. However, there is a new hire in the office who does not understand Hindi and is well-versed in English. To connect and motivate the new hire, the manager is required to make an attempt to change his communication language.

In the above example, the manager is not an ineffective leader; he faces some unprecedented challenges. Instead of following the transactional leadership theory, the manager is required to focus on the contingency or situational leadership theory to adapt to the changing situation.

This is why leadership theories are so critical in the workplace. It helps you become an effective and highly productive leader.

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