4 Leadership Theories and What They Can Teach Your Team 

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Throughout this month we’ve been looking at different aspects of leadership. In the past week or so we’ve had lots of discussions about Self-Leadership and what it can do to help team members learn how to become better leaders, by first learning how to become leaders of themselves. 

But now we want to back out again a bit and talk about some of the major leadership theories that are our there. At Invite Japan we don’t usually get too far deep into theory. Some of our team building workshops use some theoretical concepts, but in general we tend to hew to the practical side of team building–activities where teams can see and feel and experience the team building work happening without having to think too deeply about it. 

Sometimes though, we can learn a lot from looking at leadership theories. With leadership, there is a long history of leadership ideas, with many going in and out of style. Our focus won’t be so much on saying which one is right or wrong. Rather, we want to touch on some of the issues that each of these theories raises and some of the questions that they pose for teams.

In other words, every theory says something about the type of team and the type of leaders that theorists had in mind. And so we can all use these theories to look at our own teams and see what we might be able to improve. 

So with this mindset in our heads, let’s take the plunge and look at some leadership theories….

1) Trait Theory 

People have always been fascinated by leaders and leadership. So the earliest leadership theories, going back to ancient history, looked at so-called “great men” (like Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, etc.)  and tried to derive leadership traits from their actions and character. These were traits like self-confidence, intelligence, bravery and compassion that were seen to be inherited naturally.

Over time, the traits that these leaders displayed were separated from their identities and personalities. So Great-Man theory morphed into Trait Theory, which said that all leaders, whether they are kings or managers, have similar traits in common. The issue though, is that Trait Theory instills a belief that only certain people can become leaders–those with the correct traits.

Despite the fact that we still in many cases believe that good leaders have inborn talents, and that we still idolize “Great Men” (see Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Masayoshi Son, etc.) it’s better in the long run to move away from Trait Theory and recognize more collaborative and meritocratic forms of leadership. 

Still, what Trait Theory can highlight is that different people do have different talents that can be adapted to leadership styles. So it’s not that some people are meant to be leaders, but rather that everyone can use their individual traits and skills to become more confident in themselves and capable of leading. 

Takeaway: In today’s more democratic and collaborative society, Trait Theory has become a little outdated and anachronistic. However, we can still benefit from recognizing and acknowledging individuals’ unique talents and skills, in order to combine them with the rest of the team and create a more resilient and adaptable leadership structure.  

2) Behavioral Theory

Behavioral leadership theories are in fact somewhat similar to trait theories–they both take already established leaders as role models and try to figure out what makes them different. The major difference is that Behavioral Theory looks at actions rather than traits. Another difference is that these behaviors can be learned from experience and conditioning. 

Behavioral leadership theories emerged in the early 1900s along with Behavioralism in the field of psychology–the belief that people could change with proper conditioning. So the breakdown of different leadership types, as developed in the 1930s by Kurt Lewin, still seems very rooted in the 20th century:

  • Autocratic Leaders: issue orders without consulting their team and who lead in a top-down, hierarchical manner. 
  • Democratic Leaders: invite input from the rest of their team generally create a more collaborative atmosphere, even though they ultimately make the final decision (this is also known as the Participative Theory of Leadership)
  • Laissez-Faire Leaders: allow the rest of the team to make decisions and leave team members to their own work, and are there in a support/guidance role.  

This leadership theory  doesn’t prescribe one type over the other, though. In different situations, each of these behavioral types might be useful. For example, during a crisis or emergency situation, it might be better to have a more autocratic-style leader who can issue orders quickly and decisively.  

Takeaway: Because leaders aren’t born but become, anyone can become a leader through learning, observing and experiencing. Furthermore, noticing behavior and what “types” leaders fit into can be a good step in recognizing what leadership skills are needed for certain teams.  

3) Contingency and Situational Theory

Rather than dealing with set traits or behaviors, which can be messy since they involve ever-changing and evolving human beings, contingency and situational theories emphasize the importance of adapting leadership to the situation. 

Contingency theory merely posits that leaders need to be aware of context when developing their leadership style. Certain situations and teams will require employing different leadership methods, so leadership is a contingent variable.

Situational Leadership Theory was first developed by Dr. Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard, and then later expanded by Blanchard in his own research. In the expanded version, Blanchard came up with four styles of leadership, that should be matched to the maturity and developmental level of teams:

  1. Directing: provides lots of clear direction and instructions, with minimal supportive behavior. Imagine new employees who are less confident or about their skills or committed to the task, and need firm guidance.
  2. Coaching: provides clear direction and lots of supporting behavior, such as feedback. This style is useful for “enthusiastic beginners” who are committed and want to learn, but who lack complete knowledge about how to get certain things done.   
  3. Supporting: provides less direction and more supporting behavior from behind, such as feedback and review. This style may be helpful for team members that are high-functioning, but who may be having some difficulties or are unable to get past a challenging task. 
  4. Delegating: provides minimal direction and also minimal support. This style is for mature and developed teams, who can accomplish most tasks on their own, and only need leaders to organize the team and perhaps review any decisions. 

Takeaway: Contingency and situational leadership theories make it clear that there is no one-size fits all leadership style. Leaders have to adapt to different situations, and change along with their teams. 

4) Relationship Theory: Power, Influence, and Transformative vs. Transactional Leadership

The last group of leadership theories is structured around the relationships between leaders and their team, which means they end up revolving around power and influence dynamics. In the Forms of Power Theory, leadership power is broken down into four positional power sources and two personal power sources.

The Four Positional Power Sources:

The positional power sources are derived from the structures around you and what other people value as leadership qualities. They are:

  1. Legitimate–authority that comes from status, awards, honors, or position.
  2. Coercive–the power to punish and threaten.
  3. Reward–the authority to confer rewards like promotions, training, good assignments, and compliments.
  4. Informational–the power that comes with having certain valuable knowledge, information, or skills that others need. 

The Two Personal Power Sources:

The personal power sources come from within–they are based on your own skills and knowledge that make you confident as a leader.

  1. Expert–the confidence that comes from being knowledgeable about certain areas or a wide range of areas, and the ability to assess situations accurately and form solutions.
  2. Referent–this is confidence that is gained from being skilled at social interactions and gaining others’ trust and respect. Referent power is generally regarded as less stable than expert power in the long run, since it is not based on any metrics of success or achievement.   

Transactional vs. Transformative Leadership

A similar leadership theory that uses power and influence as its base is the transactional vs. transformational model of leadership. 

Transactional Leadership, also known as Managerial Leadership assumes that people do things for rewards, and so the most effective leaders are ones who can effectively utilize rewards and punishments. Team members take orders from the leader, and work is accomplished within strict guidelines and under careful scrutiny.

Transformational Leadership, on the other hand, sees the relationship between leaders and teams as more mutual. Leaders are most effective when they inspire and motivate teams, and stimulate their creativity. Teams can also inspire leaders through their actions to become better and more supportive. The key to this relationship is having a vision for the team, and communicating that vision to all team members.

Takeaway: Understanding power and influence dynamics on your team is crucial to understanding how leadership functions, what its role is within certain spaces, and who actually wields the power. However, power doesn’t always have to be about coercion and control, and can also be used to transform and inspire.

Conclusion: Towards a new theory of leadership?

As you can see, leadership theories range widely and cover vast territory: relationships, power, behavior, support, influence and the contingencies of work and life. While this was a lot of information, we hope that you found it as interesting as we did. It’s always useful to look back and peek at the ideas of the past in order to learn about where to go in the future.

And that’s where we want to leave you. These past models may have been useful, and there is still a lot to learn from them. But the world is changing fast. We can no longer rely on certain structures like office culture or even having a manager present in the room with us while we’re working. So the nature of leadership is changing, along with the rest of work and life. 

This presents a unique opportunity to restructure and determine new models for ourselves. Use these theories and then ask yourself: what is leadership like on my team, and what do I want it to be like? The next model of leadership is right around the corner, and in your hands…    

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