Three Theories of Leadership
The Great Man Theory
The Great Man Theory was abandoned in favor of the theories of behavioral science. It’s easy to be inspired by stories of great men and women who did great things in their lives. Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Genghis Khan then ravaged most of it. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Harriet Tubman saved hundreds from slavery in the Underground Railroad. Mother Theresa aided and comforted thousands in Calcutta who were abandoned by society. Theory goes that these people did great things because they were simple great people determined by fate and fulfilling their destiny.
The Trait Theory
It has often been said, “Great leaders are born, not made.” Trait Theory takes this saying literally. If you have the ability to lead, you were born with it, with no way to learning those skills. This theory expands on the Great Man Theory by defining what makes great leaders “great.”
Today, we recognize that true leadership seems to come from a combination of both theories – and more. As we have seen, there are wide varieties of leadership qualities. Everyone has some ability in at least one or more of these areas. This means that under the right circumstances, anyone can rise to a leadership role and be successful based on the leadership style that best matches their personality if they know how to use that ability to properly address the situation at hand. Other leadership skills can indeed be learned, developed, and mastered.
In 1978, James MacGregor Burns introduced the idea of transformational leadership as he researched political leaders. Burns theorized that “transformational leadership” is actually a process where leaders interact with their followers and inspire each other to advance together. His characteristics and behaviors demonstrated the differences between “management” and “leadership.” People and organizations are transformed due to the leadership style and abilities of the leader, who is able to convey a vision and guide the transformation.
Bernard M. Bass, in 1985, added to Burns’ transformational leadership theory buy shifting the focus to the followers. It is not the individual traits and vision of the leader that matter as much as it is their ability to influence the feelings, attitudes, and commitment of their followers. As we mentioned before in productivity studies, if followers feel they can trust a leader (or better yet, if they admire a leader who can stimulate a sense of loyalty and respect) the followers go beyond what was originally expected of them and will do so happily. As a result, productivity and unity increases. The followers are transformed by a charismatic, motivational leader.
Through all of the studies, we have seen that there are a variety of attributes and abilities associated with leadership, and these vary from leader to leader. Some leaders are great orators, others great writers. Some leaders are very quiet, but the force of their logic or passion wins the day. The difference between a good leader and a great leader is partly the number of leadership skills they have developed. The other part is their ability to apply those skills properly to those who would follow. We will address these issues in the next section.