Popular Leadership Models

No two situations or people are alike, and no two leaders can be exactly the same. All leaders have to find their own way, but there is no reason to stumble about blindly. Academics and management consultants have studied leadership. The first step to finding your own leadership style is to look at the development of the following schools of thought about leadership:

  • Great man
  • Trait
  • Behavioral
  • Contingency
  • Transactional
  • Transformational

Each of these schools includes many individual theories of management, but it is sufficient to focus on the general concepts. By doing so, you will find some useful tools for developing leadership.

The University of Exeter's Centre for Leadership Studies has an extensive treatise on the evolution of leadership theory. It includes the schools of thought discussed in this chapter as well as many specific academic theories. For a free copy and to see other resources, visit its website.

Great Man

According to the great man theory, people are born to leadership. Members of royalty, military commanders, and captains of industry throughout history and into much of the twentieth century were the natural heirs to authority and rule. That picture was generally of a white male of Western European descent.

In the present, it is easy to laugh at the smug naïveté that dismissed most of the world's population as candidates for leadership, but don't start chuckling yet. There is an enormous residue of expectation that is culturally conditioned into most of us. It's easy — and foolish — to turn your back on this intellectual and emotional heritage, which can affect your own expectations of yourself and your relationships with others.

Rejecting the great man theory is dangerous on another ground. Not only do many people subscribe to this belief, making it more difficult for many to enter leadership roles, but it had some basis in fact in the sense that some people have personalities that lend themselves to leadership. That includes personal traits, habits, and knowledge. Studying these people — regardless of whether they fall into the historic definition of leader material — can offer lessons on what you need to achieve to advance your own leadership capabilities.


The trait theory of leadership derived from the great man theory. It suggests that you can identify a potential leader by examining the personality traits of the person and matching them to the characteristics “real” leaders possess.

Part of being a leader is working with what is around you. Be aware that many people still hold to the trait school even if they don't realize it, and they may not see you as leadership material if you don't fit their particular view of a leader. You can still lead; it just takes additional care and planning.

That might sound arbitrary, but it's surprising how much general agreement you can find among people on the topic. Over 20 years, two researchers, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, interviewed 75,000 people, asking them what top ten characteristics they'd need to see in someone to willingly follow the person. Here are the characteristics, from most to least popular:

  • Honest
  • Forward-looking
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Intelligent
  • Fair-minded
  • Broad-minded
  • Supportive
  • Straightforward
  • Dependable
  • Cooperative
  • Determined
  • Imaginative
  • Ambitious
  • Courageous
  • Caring
  • Mature
  • Loyal
  • Self-controlled
  • Independent

It's a daunting list, and there are factors other than personal traits involved in leadership. However, leadership is personal, and you don't have to be born with each of these traits. In fact, you can actually develop characteristics in yourself through work and intention.


Over-reliance on a behavioral view can result in a surface interpretation of leadership, one reason you can find so many carbon-copy executives roaming the halls of corporations. People go through the motions rather than truly becoming leaders. The difficulty is to take behavior and internalize it so that the expression is genuine.

In the behavioral school, leaders are not born, nor are they required to possess a proper collection of traits. Instead, leadership is a matter of proper behavior. The evolution of this school of thought is important because it represents the first time people began to see leading as something that could be learned. Experts observed people who were able to act as leaders and studied how they handled human relationships and the behaviors that led to failure.

Behavioral theories are generally founded on categories of behavior and leadership types. The thinking can result in the fallacy that simple imitation of outward behavior is enough to establish leadership.


In the contingency theory, the study of leadership took another step toward a modern view. Every other school to this point assumed that there was only one type of leader and that all people would need to use the same approach in every situation. But nothing in the world is so rigid and unchanging.

A leadership style that works for a given person in a particular context isn't universal. The proper approach to leading depends on the goal, the people on the team, and the relationship of the leader to everyone else. It's a more flexible and realistic concept.


Transactional leadership models treat the process of leading as a cross between a social and business transaction. There are specific hierarchies and structures in which some people are leaders and others are followers. A leader and follower agree to a contract. The latter is responsible for following orders to do a job, and the former provides rewards for proper execution of responsibilities.

The transactional model should not be taken to a rigid extreme, but the concept has an appealing clarity. Ultimately, people must know what they need to accomplish and what others expect from them. Without this, communication will always be flawed.

The difficulty in transactional leadership is that the concept doesn't apply well to all circumstances or cultures. For example, job-performance-and-reward model doesn't pertain to volunteer efforts, where the reward is usually something other than what the leader can directly provide.


The transformational school is popular today. It is based on vision. A leader is an inspiring figure who works with followers to achieve a goal. In the process, everyone helps each other to reach greater levels of achievement. Trust is an essential bond, and those who follow voluntarily buy into the goals. Transformational leadership has become a fundamental tool, particularly in the concept of getting others to buy into necessary changes in the workplace.

One reason this model is a true development is its goal emphasis. The relationship between the leader and other members of the team isn't of primary importance. Such roles and duties exist because there is an outside something that all wish to reach, and so they take their places and undertake their own necessary tasks. For the first time, those studying leadership began to see it as necessarily being in relation to something greater. Transformational leadership depends on a greater context or meaning, which is something all people desire.

Yet desirability and popularity are not effortless. Building trust and getting cooperation are far more difficult than giving orders and monitoring process. In transformational leadership, the leader must continue to be an inspiring presence. The leader leads by example and is responsible for motivating others.

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