Leadership Theories

Listed below are seven of the major theories about leadership. Click on the theory name to learn more about it. What type of leadership style do you identify with most?







Great leaders are born with a set of traits/innate qualities. Focus is on the leader not the situation.

Leaders differ from average individuals in intelligence, alertness, insight, responsibility, initiative, persistence, self-confidence, and sociability.

Individuals can apply their leadership traits at any type of job/position. Self-assessment can help potential leaders understand their strengths and areas for improvement in their leadership skills.


A leader-focused approach with emphasis on skills and abilities that can be developed.

A leader’s ability hinges on how they solve complex organizational problems. Leaders possess five capabilities: competencies, individual attributes, leadership outcomes, career experiences, and environmental influences.

An individual can develop these skills no matter the level at which they work in an organization. Descriptive in nature, the skills approach builds on the traits-only approach by integrating skills, abilities, and context. Aspiring leaders can assess strengths and weaknesses using skill inventories that will allow them to seek training to improve deficient skills.


Emphasizes a leader’s behavior, what they do, and how they act—not who they are.

Leadership style focuses on task behavior and relationship behavior. When leaders focus on both of these behaviors, they provide a nurturing structure for their employees.

Self-assessment in the areas of task and relationship behavior can help evaluate leadership abilities. Many training programs use this model.


Leadership is supportive and directive. Leaders adjust these qualities based on the situation that needs to be addressed.

There is a continuum of behaviors between supportive and directive leadership.
Directing: high directive, low supportive
Coaching: high directive, high supportive
Supporting: high supportive, low directive
Delegating: low supportive, low directive

This continuum is used in different contexts/situations to support employees as their abilities warrant.


Focuses on the relationship between the leader, group, and work setting. Concerned with motivation.

Path-Goal leadership has four elements: 1) Defining goals, 2) clarifying paths, 3) removing obstacles, and 4) providing support.

Provides general recommendations to assist employees by increasing motivation.

Leader-Member Exchange

Concerned with the interactions between leaders and followers.

Studies the differences between in-group and out-of-group interactions with leaders. High quality leader-member exchanges improve retention, promotions, positive evaluations, and attitudes. Leadership develops in three phases: stranger phase, acquaintance phase, mature partnership phase.

Guides individuals to assess their leadership capabilities based on the dynamics of their in-group and out-of-group interactions.


Leadership changes and transforms individuals. Leaders treat followers as complete human beings, considering their emotions and needs.

Transformational leaders have a clear vision, are social architects, build trust, and emphasize sense of self and confidence by focusing on strengths.

Does not provide clear guidelines, but understands how leaders motivate others and transform themselves and their organizations.

Psychodynamic Approach

Leaders are more effective if they understand the personality characteristics & psychological makeup of their employees.

Relies on archetypes to describe the psychological background to developing insight into others’ histories, emotions, etc. Focuses on the leader's insights.

Both leaders and followers can use personality assessments to analyze their ideal working situation or simply to learn more about themselves.

Excerpted from: Northouse, Peter G. (2004). Leadership Theory and Practice. California: Sage Publications.

Now that you have learned a little about leadership and management, click on the links below for two case studies with discussion questions. There are no right or wrong answers, just food for thought!

Leadership and Management Case Study #1

Leadership and Management Case Study #2