5 Major Leadership Theories


In my previous posts, I looked at followership. In my next posts, I will look at Leadership in its various forms. During my 20 plus years of service in the Royal Air Force, I attended numerous Leadership and Management courses. Each of them improved my knowledge, skills and behaviours associated with Leadership and Management but I found that my development in this area went to the next level when I began to lead and manage people because you can only learn leadership by doing leadership.

The interaction of a manager with his or her team has such an influence on the culture, behaviours and outcomes of individuals, teams and the organisation. If that leadership is bad then the impact can be extremely damaging and cause the organisation to lose good people and develop negativity that is hard to recover from.

I believe that all employees, who are in a supervisory or management position, should receive, through career, leadership and management development. A small part of this development is knowledge of the different leadership theories.

In this post I aim to look at, what I consider to be, the 5 Major Leadership Theories and will give an overview of each one.

Leadership is a vast subject and has been a topic of debate for most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. During the past 100 years, there have been numerous theories and styles identified and embraced as the definitive way to describe leadership. Let’s look at the 5 Major Leadership Theories.

The Great Man Leadership Theory

The Great Man Theory, as popularised by Thomas Carlyle in the late 1800s, was one of the first academic theories of leadership. Carlyle describes leadership as a god-given trait, as something you are born with and that is handed down from one great man to another through family bonds. Great Man Theory informs us that leadership is developed by education, lifestyle and events but is only an extension of those skills already held by birth. Great Man Theory was heavily criticised by Herbert Spencer. He was of the opinion that Great Men were not great leaders but were perceived as great leaders due to the environment and positions they held rather than the skills and traits they displayed (Leadership-Central.com, 2010-2019).

Reference: Leadership-Central.com, 2010-2019.Great Man theory. [Online]

Available at: https://www.leadership-central.com/great-man-theory.html

[Accessed 14 April 2019].

Contingency Leadership Theory

Another popular Leadership Theory is Fred Fiedler’s Contingency Theory from the 1960s. Contingency Theory prescribes that leadership is situational and requires the leader to change their behaviours to adapt to the environment and people they are working with. Contingency Theory identifies two types of leader, a task-orientated leader and a people-orientated leader. Contingency Theory states that for leaders to be effective they must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities that are understood by all and that the position of leadership is supported by the culture and behaviours of the organization. Contingency Theory also states that the relationship between the leader and the follower has to be strong and mutually supportive. Fiedler identified that task-orientated leaders are effective in extremely favourable and unfavourable environments and that people-orientated leaders are more effective in intermediate environments (Michael, 2016).

Reference: Michael, 2016. Leadership Theories: Fiedlers Contingency Theory. [Online]

Available at: http://www.leadershipgeeks.com/fiedlers-contingency-theory/

[Accessed 14 April 2019].

Transactional Leadership Theory

The Leadership Theories that I have had the most exposure to during my time in the Royal Air Force are Transactional and Transformational Leadership Theories.

Transactional Leadership Theory was first muted by Max Weber in 1947 and followed up by Bernard Moss in 1981. Transactional Leadership Theory is, as the name suggests, about a transaction between the leaders and their followers. The goals and processes are in place and the leader’s role is to offer a reward or punishment for achieving, or not achieving, the organisation’s goals. It is a standard management practice and is sometimes known as Management leadership and relies on the assumption that the subordinates are motivated by rewards, obey leadership and don’t have the internal motivation to get the work done without a transaction, reward or punishment, being in place. Transactional leadership focuses on short-term rules-based activities and tends to stifle innovation and creative thinking, it is very process orientated style of leadership (Surbhi, 2015).

Reference: Surbhi, 2015. The Difference between transactional and transformational leadership. [Online]

Available at: https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-transactional-and-transformational-leadership.html

[Accessed 14 April 2019].

Transformational Leadership Theory

Transformational Leadership was first described by James MacGregor Burns in 1978 and has been used to describe how leaders use their character and charisma to change follower’s motivations, behaviours and organisational culture. Transformational Leadership is about changing mindset through inspiring and bringing people into alignment through motivation, trust and empowerment. Transformational Leadership is aimed at more long-term gains and organisational culture change rather than day to day activities (Juneja, n.d.).

Reference: Juneja, P., n.d. Transformational Leadership Theory. [Online]

Available at: https://www.managementstudyguide.com/transformational-leadership.htm

[Accessed 14 April 2019].

Servant Leadership Theory

The servant-leader idea and characteristics have been around for a very long time but the name servant leadership was not identified until 1970 in an essay, the essentials of servant leadership, by Robert K Greenleaf. Greenleaf espoused the virtues of being a servant leader. However, Larry Spears went on to identify 10 characteristics of a servant leader that allow us to conceptualise what a servant leader is.  They include the following:

  1. Listening – Being an active and reflective listener.
  2. Empathy – It is becoming more and more apparent that emotional intelligence is considered an essential attribute of all leaders.
  3. Healing – The ability to gain trust and build up individuals’ confidence.
  4. Awareness – It is necessary for a leader to be fully self-aware and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Persuasion – The ability to build consensus and influence people.
  6. Conceptualisation – Leaders must be able to think beyond the day to day activity and think more strategically and come up with ideas and solutions that challenge normal thinking.
  7. Foresight – Leaders must be able to take the lessons of the past, the actions of the present to foresee the outcomes of the future.
  8. Stewardship – Leaders must be able to not do what they do for their own benefit but must act as stewards of the organisation and its people for the future benefit of the organisation and its people.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people – Leaders must develop and grow their team. People must be seen as a value not a cost to the business.
  10. Building Community – The leader must build communities within the organisation that support each other and the organisation to improve, develop and enable closer bonds.

I believe that these characteristics are achievable but only in an environment and culture where there are open-mindedness and excellent followership. With these in place servant leadership can flourish but without it, it will struggle.


There are many more Leadership Theories and I have looked at what I believe to have been the most important from their time. Leadership is such a vast topic and has so many opinions, theories and styles associated with it that one post will never be able to do it justice. This post has been an introduction to leadership and in my next posts, I shall delve into the interesting world that is leadership styles.

The video below gives an excellent summary of the 5 Major Leadership Theories I have discussed and also includes others.

6 thoughts on “5 Major Leadership Theories

  1. Zak Reply

    Having been in management roles, it’s interesting to read the theories that underpin effective leadership. Based on my experience as a manager, and from managers I have worked under, I think people tend to lean naturally to one of the above styles (through their own temperament, personality and experience), and I think the organisation culture definitely does impact things. Interestingly, in my latest management position I felt that I was able to be more of a ‘servant leader’ thanks to the company culture, but in my previous management role I was more of a transactional leader due to that company’s culture. Thanks for a great post!

    • David Casaru Post authorReply

      Hi Zak, Thank you for the comments on the post, I really appreciate your input. I think you hit the nail on the head about the leadership style you adopt being a result of temperament, personality and experience but more importantly the culture of the organisation. If an organisation has a culture of bullying, lack of trust and micromanagement it will encourage leadership styles that embrace and reinforce this, bad culture breads bad leadership. That is why so many leadership programmes go hand in hand with a desire to change organisational culture.

    • David Casaru Reply

      Hi Zenebe, Thanks for your comments. Apologies for the delay in replying.

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