Concepts from leadership theory can help us pause and reflect upon how we’ve been performing as leaders. They open space for us to re-imagine what it look like to be a great leader.
So, I’ve compiled some effective leadership concepts here. Some are highly theoretical, based on decades of leadership research. Others are practical, more likely to be found on podcasts or in self-help books than the academic litearture.
But combined these concepts can each help us to think about self-improvement to ultimately figure out what sort of leader our teams need us to be in order to achieve what needs to be achieved.
1. Situational Leadership
I decided to open this discussion with the concept of situational leadership, which refers to an approach to leadership that is flexible and adaptive. It highlights that the leader we need to be depends on the situation in which we find ourselves (Rabarison, Ingram & Holsinger, 2013).
I wanted to start with this concept because many of the following ideas will put forward one style or approach, arguing that it’s the ‘best’ approach to leadership. But as you read on, remember, that good leaders are aware of the situational context in which they find themselves and take-on roles that are best suited for helping effect change in context. These leaders are called situational leaders.
See More: Situational Leadership Examples
2. Transformational Leadership
The transformational leader is one that aims to bring about a transformation in their teams, rather than just incrementalism. These leaders ‘lead from the front’, impose their will, and attempt to inspire the team to see their vision.
Bass and Riggio (2006) argue that there are four primary characteristics of the transformational leader:
- idealized influence,
- inspirational motivation,
- intellectual stimulation, and
- individual consideration.
Henry Ford, for example, might be a transformational leader because he caused a transformation in a whole industry with his vision (see more examples of transformational leaders here).
While this model can work, there are weaknesses – if the team isn’t on board with the leader’s vision, they may cause a lot of turmoil and friction while attempting to implement their vision.
3. Leading by Example
This is my first concept that’s not necessarily theoretical, but nevertheless has a lot of traction within leadership literature.
To lead by example means to ensure you’re doing everything that you would expect of your team. This starts with turning up at the office with the right attitude and on time, wearing the right clothes to send the right message, and setting a high standard of work by living by that standard yourself.
Such a mentality is common in the military, where the higher-ups must uphold the military mindset of discipline and respect for the flag. However, it is present and necessary in all leadership situations.
4. Servant Leadership
The servant leadership approach is rooted in the idea that a leader’s primary role is to serve others, particularly their team members.
Robert K. Greenleaf, who first coined the term (Greenleaf, 2013), argued that servant leaders prioritize the growth, well-being, and success of their team above their own interests.
Key characteristics of servant leaders include:
- Listening Actively: They value the perspectives and feedback of their team members and actively seek them out.
- Empathy: They genuinely care about the personal and professional well-being of their team members.
- Stewardship: They view themselves as stewards of the organization’s resources and the team’s potential, ensuring both are used wisely (Greenleaf, 2013).
Organizations led by servant leaders often report higher levels of trust, team cohesion, and employee satisfaction (Peterson et al., 2012).
See More: Servant Leadership Characteristics
5. Authentic Leadership
Authentic leadership emphasizes the importance of leaders being genuine, self-aware, and transparent (Gardner et al., 2011; George, 2010). These leaders are deeply rooted in their values and beliefs, and they lead with consistency, openness, and honesty.
Bill George (2010), a proponent of authentic leadership, suggests that these leaders:
- Understand their purpose.
- Practice solid values.
- Lead with heart.
- Establish connected relationships.
- Demonstrate self-discipline. (Gardner et al., 2011)
By being true to themselves, authentic leaders inspire trust and loyalty among their followers, fostering a culture of openness and integrity (George, 2010).
See More: Authentic Leadership Examples
6. Growth Mindsets
Coined by psychologist Carol Dweck (2016), the concept of a growth mindset is not exclusive to leadership but is crucial for leaders who aim to foster innovation and adaptability. Leaders with a growth mindset believe that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, where individuals believe their talents are innate (Yeager & Dweck, 2020).
Leaders who embrace a growth mindset:
- Encourage risk-taking and view failures as learning opportunities.
- Prioritize continuous learning and development for themselves and their teams.
- Celebrate effort and progress, not just results (Dweck, 2016).
By fostering a growth mindset culture, leaders can drive innovation, resilience, and a love for learning within their organizations (Yeager & Dweck, 2020).
Read More: Growth Mindset Examples
Mentorship is a time-honored leadership concept where experienced individuals guide, support, and nurture the development of less experienced members. Leaders who prioritize mentorship:
- Share their knowledge and insights generously.
- Provide constructive feedback to help mentees grow.
- Open doors to opportunities and networks for their mentees.
Mentorship not only accelerates the professional growth of the mentee but also offers fresh perspectives and rejuvenation for the mentor. It’s a symbiotic relationship that strengthens the fabric of an organization.
See More: Top Goals for Mentorship
8. Employee Empowerment
Empowering employees means giving them the authority, resources, and confidence to make decisions and take ownership of their roles. Leaders who practice employee empowerment:
- Trust their team members to make decisions.
- Provide the necessary tools and training for employees to succeed.
- Celebrate and reward initiative and innovation.
Empowered employees often exhibit higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity, and commitment to the organization. By fostering a culture of empowerment, leaders can tap into the full potential of their teams and drive organizational success.
9. Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic leadership revolves around the magnetic charm and appeal of the leader. Such leaders possess an innate ability to inspire and motivate their followers through their personal charisma, rather than through external power or authority (Antonakis et al., 2022; Banks et al., 2017).
Key attributes of charismatic leaders include:
- Personal Charm: They have a captivating personality that draws people to them.
- Strong Convictions: They often have a clear vision and are passionate about their beliefs.
- Ability to Inspire: They can evoke strong emotions and inspire followers to rally behind a cause (Banks et al., 2017).
However, it’s essential to note that while charismatic leaders can bring about rapid change and fervent followership, there’s a risk. If not checked, their influence can lead to blind followership or even a cult of personality (Antonakis et al., 2022).
See More: Charismatic Leadership Examples
10. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence (EI) or EQ (Emotional Quotient) is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions while also recognizing, understanding, and influencing the emotions of others. In leadership, EQ is crucial for:
- Empathy: Understanding and sharing the feelings of team members.
- Self-regulation: Managing one’s own emotions, especially in stressful situations.
- Social Skills: Building rapport and effective relationships with team members. (Goleman, & Boyatzis, 2017)
Leaders with high EQ are better equipped to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically, leading to a more harmonious and productive work environment.
See More: A Guide to Emotional Intelligence
11. Leader-Member Exchange (LMX)
Leader-Member Exchange theory focuses on the unique, dyadic relationship between leaders and followers (Erdogan & Bauer, 2015; Megheirkouni, 2017). It posits that leaders form different kinds of relationships with various members of their team based on trust, respect, and obligation.
Key aspects of LMX include:
- In-group and Out-group Dynamics: Leaders may have a closer relationship (in-group) with some members, leading to more trust and better communication. Conversely, they might have a more distant relationship (out-group) with others.
- Reciprocity: High-quality LMX relationships are characterized by mutual respect, trust, and obligation (Erdogan & Bauer, 2015).
Effective leaders strive to improve LMX relationships with all team members, ensuring that everyone feels valued and understood (Megheirkouni, 2017).
See More: In-Groups vs Out-Groups
12. Visionary Leadership
Visionary leaders are forward-thinking, seeing beyond the present to imagine what could be. They inspire their teams by painting a vivid picture of the future and charting a clear path to get there (Taylor, Cornelius & Colvin, 2014; Worley, 2018).
Characteristics of visionary leaders include:
- Future Orientation: They think long-term and are often ahead of their time.
- Inspiration: They can articulate a compelling vision that motivates and energizes their team.
- Risk-taking: They’re not afraid to challenge the status quo and take calculated risks to achieve their vision (Worley, 2018).
While visionary leadership can drive innovation and progress, it’s essential for these leaders to remain grounded and ensure that their visions are achievable and aligned with the organization’s broader goals (Taylor, Cornelius & Colvin, 2014; ).
See More: Visionary Leadership Examples
Empowerment in leadership refers to the delegation of power and authority to subordinates, enabling them to make decisions and take action. It’s about trusting and equipping team members to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities.
Key aspects of empowerment include:
- Delegation: Assigning tasks and responsibilities to team members based on their skills and expertise.
- Trust: Believing in the team’s capability to handle tasks without micromanagement.
- Skill Development: Providing training and resources to ensure team members are equipped to handle their responsibilities.
Empowered teams often exhibit increased motivation, job satisfaction, and productivity as they feel a greater sense of ownership and agency in their roles.
14. Active Management by Exception
Active Management by Exception is a leadership style where leaders actively monitor team members’ performance and intervene only when standards aren’t met or when there are deviations from set procedures (Hasija, Hyde & Kushwaha, 2019).
- Proactive Oversight: Regularly checking on team members’ progress and performance.
- Intervention: Stepping in when there are discrepancies or when standards aren’t met.
- Rule Enforcement: Ensuring that established procedures and standards are adhered to (Hasija, Hyde & Kushwaha, 2019).
While this approach can ensure consistency and adherence to standards, it can sometimes be perceived as micromanagement.
15. Passive Management by Exception
Contrary to Active Management by Exception, Passive Management by Exception involves leaders intervening only when problems become apparent or when they escalate. They do not actively monitor performance but react when issues arise (Hasija, Hyde & Kushwaha, 2019).
Features of this style include:
- Reactive Approach: Addressing issues only when they become evident.
- Hands-off Leadership: Minimal involvement in day-to-day operations unless necessary.
- Dependence on Feedback: Relying on others to bring issues to their attention (Hasija, Hyde & Kushwaha, 2019).
This style can sometimes lead to problems being overlooked until they become significant, but it also offers team members a greater sense of autonomy.
16. Fiedler’s LPC (Least Preferred Coworker)
Developed by Fred Fiedler, the LPC model is a contingency theory of leadership. Leaders rate their least preferred coworker (LPC) on a series of scales (friendly/unfriendly, supportive/hostile, etc.). High LPC scores indicate relationship-oriented leaders, while low scores indicate task-oriented leaders (Fiedler, Bons & Hastings, 2017).
The theory suggests:
- Situational Match: Leadership effectiveness depends on the match between the leader’s style and the situational favorableness (control and influence they have in their environment).
- Flexibility: Leaders might not easily change their style, so placing them in situations that match their style is crucial (Fiedler, Bons & Hastings, 2017).
17. Leader Position Power
Position power refers to the authority and influence a leader has due to their formal position in the organization. It’s the power that comes with a title or role.
Key aspects include:
- Decision-making Authority: The power to make decisions that affect the team or organization.
- Resource Control: Control over resources, including budgets, tools, and personnel.
- Influence over Rewards/Punishments: The ability to reward or penalize team members based on performance.
While position power can ensure compliance, relying solely on it can lead to a lack of genuine commitment from team members. Effective leaders often complement it with personal power, derived from their expertise, relationships, and charisma.
18. Participative Decision Making
Participative Decision Making (PDM) is a leadership approach where leaders involve team members in the decision-making process. Instead of making decisions unilaterally, leaders using PDM value and seek out the input of their team members (Pacheco & Webber, 2016).
Key aspects of PDM include:
- Collaboration: Encouraging team members to share their perspectives and insights.
- Democratization: Distributing the decision-making power among team members.
- Increased Buy-in: Decisions made through PDM often have higher levels of acceptance and commitment since team members feel a sense of ownership (Pacheco & Webber, 2016).
While PDM can lead to more informed and accepted decisions, it might also be time-consuming, especially in larger teams or complex scenarios.
19. Achievement-Oriented Leadership
Achievement-Oriented Leadership is a style where leaders set challenging goals for their team members, expecting them to perform at their highest level. It’s one of the four components of the Path-Goal Theory of leadership.
- High Standards: Setting ambitious yet achievable goals for the team.
- Confidence in Team: Believing that team members are capable of meeting or exceeding these standards.
- Continuous Improvement: Encouraging team members to continually improve their skills and surpass their past performance.
Such leaders not only set high expectations but also provide the necessary support and resources to help their teams achieve these goals.
20. Adaptive Leadership
Adaptive leadership is a framework developed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard University. It focuses on helping organizations navigate and thrive in complex, changing environments (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky, 2009).
Key aspects of adaptive leadership include:
- Problem Diagnosis: Recognizing the difference between technical problems (which can be solved with existing knowledge) and adaptive challenges (which require new learning and changes in values, beliefs, or behavior).
- Regulating Distress: Managing the inevitable tensions and anxieties that arise during change, ensuring they’re productive but not overwhelming.
- Empowering Others: Encouraging team members to take responsibility, experiment, and tackle challenges (Nelson & Squires, 2017).
Adaptive leaders are skilled at recognizing when change is needed, mobilizing others to tackle tough challenges, and navigating the uncertainties of the change process.
See More: Adaptive Leadership Examples
21. Transactional Behaviors
Transactional behaviors, in contrast to transformational behaviors, are based on a system of rewards and punishments. Leaders using transactional behaviors manage by exception, intervening only when team members deviate from expected standards or when performance metrics aren’t met.
Key transactional behaviors include:
- Contingent Rewards: Providing rewards (monetary, recognition, etc.) when team members meet or exceed expectations.
- Active Management by Exception: Actively monitoring performance and intervening when deviations occur.
- Passive Management by Exception: Intervening only when problems become apparent.
While transactional behaviors can ensure consistency and adherence to standards, over-reliance on them without incorporating transformational behaviors can lead to a lack of innovation and intrinsic motivation among team members.
22. Leadership Prototypes
Leadership prototypes refer to the mental images or schemas people have about what constitutes effective leadership. These prototypes are shaped by cultural, organizational, and individual experiences and can influence how individuals perceive and evaluate leaders.
Key aspects of leadership prototypes include:
- Cultural Influences: Different cultures may have varying prototypes of what an effective leader looks like. For instance, some cultures might value assertiveness in leaders, while others might prioritize humility.
- Bias and Stereotyping: If an individual doesn’t fit the commonly held prototype of a leader in a particular context, they might face challenges in being recognized or accepted as a leader.
23. Implicit Leadership Theories
Implicit Leadership Theories (ILT) are individuals’ beliefs and assumptions about the traits and abilities that characterize an effective leader. These theories are “implicit” because they operate at an unconscious level, influencing how individuals evaluate and respond to leadership behaviors (Lord et al., 2020).
Key elements of ILT include:
- Personal Biases: ILTs can be shaped by personal experiences, leading to biases in how one perceives leadership effectiveness.
- Flexibility: While ILTs are deeply ingrained, they can change over time based on new experiences and reflections (Lord et al., 2020).
24. Shared Leadership
Shared leadership is a collaborative approach where leadership roles and responsibilities are distributed among team members rather than being centralized in a single individual. It’s based on the idea that leadership is a dynamic, group process where multiple members can take on leadership roles at different times.
Characteristics of shared leadership include:
- Collaboration: Team members work together, leveraging each other’s strengths.
- Fluidity: Leadership roles can shift based on the task or situation at hand.
- Empowerment: All team members feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for outcomes.
Shared leadership can lead to increased team cohesion, innovation, and adaptability, especially in complex, fast-paced environments.
25. Relational Transparency
Relational transparency is a component of authentic leadership. It refers to leaders presenting their authentic selves to others, meaning they openly share their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs while also being receptive to feedback (Kempster, Iszatt-White & Brown, 2019).
Key aspects of relational transparency include:
- Openness: Leaders are open about their strengths, weaknesses, and emotions.
- Honesty: They communicate truthfully, avoiding hidden agendas.
- Feedback Receptivity: They value and seek feedback, using it for personal and organizational growth (Kempster, Iszatt-White & Brown, 2019).
Relational transparency fosters trust and strengthens the bond between leaders and their followers, leading to a more open and collaborative work environment.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]