Career Development

6 Leadership Theories for Career Growth

June 9, 2021

This article has been approved by an Indeed Career Coach


Understanding theories and styles of leadership can help you be more effective in your role, particularly if your position requires frequent collaboration with or management of others. Also, during the job search process, interviewers may assess your leadership potential, so it can be helpful to understand your preferred leadership practice. In this article, we define leadership theory and leadership style, explore the main leadership theories and explain why you should define your leadership approach.

What are leadership theory and leadership style?

Leadership theory studies the qualities of good leaders. Psychologists analyze and develop leadership theory, and researchers try to discover the common qualities or behavioral patterns of excellent leaders. Some of the leadership aspects they consider include:

  • Personality traits
  • Actions
  • Environment
  • Situation
  • Decision-making process
  • How input is received
  • How relationships are maintained

Leadership style is the way a leader approaches managing team members. Leadership styles were formally developed as a result of studies on leadership theory, and each style includes distinct qualities. Common leadership styles include:

  • Coach: Recognizes strengths and weaknesses, helps people set goals and provides a lot of feedback.
  • Visionary: Manages through inspiration and confidence.
  • Servant: Focuses on helping team members feel fulfilled.
  • Autocratic or authoritarian: Makes decisions with little or no input from others.
  • Laissez-faire or hands-off: Delegates tasks and provides little supervision.
  • Democratic: Considers the opinions of others before making a decision.
  • Pacesetter: Sets high standards and focuses on performance.
  • Bureaucratic: Follows a strict hierarchy and expects team members to follow procedure.

Six main leadership theories

The primary leadership theories are:

The great man theory

The great man theory of leadership states that excellent leaders are born, not developed. A popular concept in the 19th century, this theory states that leadership is an inherent quality. This type of leader often possesses the natural attributes of intelligence, courage, confidence, intuition and charm, among others. 

The trait theory

The trait theory of leadership states that certain natural qualities tend to create good leaders. Having certain qualities does not necessarily mean someone has strong leadership skills, however. Some leaders may be excellent listeners or communicators, but not every listener or communicator makes an excellent leader. 

The behavioral theory

The behavioral theory of leadership focuses on how a person’s environment, not natural abilities, forms him or her into a leader. One of the key concepts of behavioral theory is conditioning. Conditioning states that a person will be more likely to act or lead in a certain style as a result of environmental responses to behavior.

The transactional theory or management theory

The transactional theory of leadership, also called "the management theory," studies leadership as a system of rewards and penalties. It views effective leadership as results-focused and hierarchical. Transactional leaders prioritize order and structure over creativity. 

The transformational theory or relationship theory

The transformational theory of leadership, also called "the relationship theory," studies effective leadership as the result of a positive relationship between leaders and team members. Transformational leaders motivate and inspire through their enthusiasm and passion. They are a model for their teams, and they hold themselves to the same standard they expect of others. 

Read more: Transformational Leadership: Definition and Examples

The situational theory

The situational theory of leadership does not relate to a certain type of leader or claim that any one style is best. Instead, situational theory argues that the best kind of leader is one who is able to adapt her style based on the situation. They may respond to a situation by commanding, coaching, persuading, participating, delegating or however they think is necessary. Situational leaders are defined by their flexibility.

Leadership Styles
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Common leadership styles:
1. Coach (motivational)
2. Visionary (progress-focused and inspirational)
3. Servant (humble and protective)
4. Autocratic (authoritarian and result-focused)
5. Laissez-faire or hands-off (autocratic and delegatory)
6. Democratic (supportive and innovative)
7. Pacesetter (helpful and motivational)
8. Transformational (challenging and communicative)
9. Transactional (performance-focused)
10. Bureaucratic (hierarchical and duty-focused)

Why you should identify your leadership theory and style

Considering your thoughts about and practices of leadership can help you identify your areas of strength and weakness and take action to become a better leader. Try to think about what qualities you possess and what qualities you could develop. Ask yourself what leadership theory you agree with or would like to follow. By evaluating your own skills, you can understand how to better lead your group.

Some theories and styles of leadership are better for certain work environments than others. For example, if you are a sales manager and your team must meet a sales quota in one month, you may prefer transactional leadership to make sure they meet their goal. You can practice a single style or try a mix based on your needs.

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