Have you ever wondered how some people become leaders? Some seem ready-made for the positions, others, well, we might internally ponder how they got to where they are. Leadership theories give us a way to explain why certain people become leaders.

For a long time, the typical discussion revolved around nature versus nurture, and whether some people are born with the inherent skills they need to lead. Formal leadership theories are a more recent concept that offer reasoning and alternative hypotheses to explain why some leaders are successful whilst others fail.

So how can we explain what makes a good leader? This article discusses some of the main theories.

The Great Man Theory

We’ve already touched on the concept behind this one. The Great Man Theory, whilst lacking equality in the title, takes the stance that people are born with leadership abilities and are predisposed to lead. This theory was established in the 19th century by historians, who suggested that the world’s history is a collection of biographies belonging to great men

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is a good example of this. From a young age he seems to have risen to every challenge, reaching the top spot throughout his career, and arguably now attains the pinnacle of leadership success as the US president.

Trait Theories

Trait theories are founded on the belief that good leaders share several common traits. This could be education, age, or intelligence factors such as logical thinking and judgement. These are used to predict the likelihood of people succeeding as a leader, with the obvious proviso that there is no guarantee.

Just because Richard Branson thrived as a leader and is 5ft 11 doesn’t mean that everyone of this height will become a success. Sorry to dash any height-based dreams of grandeur out there!

In May, Forbes Magazine declared some common traits shared by all effective leaders. These included a sense of awareness and an ability to always do the right thing.

Behavioural Theories

Behavioural theories, non-surprisingly, focus on the manners and actions of leaders as a recipe for success. By consciously reflecting on how you should behave and act, and undertaking appropriate work, this theory suggests we are the architects to our own ability and success as a leader.

Sheryl Lyons, writing for Forbes, similarly reinforces this standpoint that leadership is a skill that can be taught and mastered through practice.

Contingency Theories

Contingency theories propose that great leadership is a combination of variables. They put forward the idea that no single style of leadership fits all – the style depends on the context. Therefore, the best leaders will be able to evaluate their environment and the needs of their teams and process this to respond in the best way. It’s ultimately a pick and mix of the core leadership theories.leadership styles catalyst coaching and mentoring

An unusual example can be seen in recent news that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have handed over control of the business to Sundar Pichai. They are going to be “proud parents – offering advice and love, but not daily nagging”.

It was a bold move for them to evaluate and decide that a top-heavy management structure wasn’t necessary for their teams to thrive. They’re adaptable and that’s why they’re successful as leaders. Although the fact that they retain majority shareholder status probably softens their decision.

Transactional Theories 

This final approach is founded on the assumption that people do things for a reward and no other reason. These theories highlight that good leaders focus on creating attractive reward structures.

On a surface level, this does seem to have credit. We’ve all heard of the free food at Facebook HQ courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg, free commuter courtesy of Apple’s Steve Jobs, and bring your dog to work every day at Amazon HQ, thanks to CEO Jeff Bezoz.

In some companies, staff can enjoy a pampered pooch with dog parks, doggy water foundations and dog treats at their disposal.

Whether these leaders are excelling through this type of reward structure, or simply buying the opinion and favour of staff, and whether providing a positive working environment is enough to keep people motivated and productive, is your decision to make.

Where does your leadership ability come from?

If you’re interested to know more about your own leadership skills, quality and style, get in touch with us for a chat. We can help you to see where you’re excelling as a leader and learn ways to improve in the areas where you’d like to get better. We provide targeted coaching services for business leaders to get to the top of their game and achieve outstanding personal and business growth. Get in touch to find out more.