What Are 4 Core Leadership Theories And How To Apply At Work

The role of a leader is paramount to a team.

Imagine an orchestra that has all the best musicians in the world except a conductor. Though every member can play perfectly on their own, if they come together, they will only produce incompatible melody; an orchestra can only create harmonious music when it is led by a conductor.

In fact, the same situation is applied to every community. If a company does not run with a leader, chaos happens: no deadline is set to urge the members, different people shout different voices, the company is blinded without a clear goal.

All of these reveal a pure fact: a leader is essential to a team to run smoothly and effectively. A leader is important, as he or she will help the community to over-see the situation and make the best decision. Only by this, the resources of a team can be allocated efficiently.

If you are currently at the position of leading a team, you should give some credits to yourself, as you play an important role. And in order to nail this role, you may want to study some theories about leadership, and lead your teammates to perform at their best.

To start with, you may want to know which level of leadership you are currently at.

Level 5 leadership from Harvard Business Review

The concept of Level 5 leadership was first introduced by a business consultant, Jim Collins. His concept was later published in a Harvard Business Review article.

The concept of Level 5 leadership began with a study conducted in 1996. In the study, Collins studied 1,435 successful companies, and he distinguished 11 truly great ones from others. Collins discovered that these 11 companies were great as they were led by what he called “level 5” leaders.

The level 5 leaders, according to Collins, possess humility and compassion for the company.

Now, you may have a look at this hierarchy of leadership:

Level 1: Highly Capable Individual

At this level, you possess the knowledge and skill that enable you to excel your work.

Level 2: Contributing Team Member

At level 2, you contribute your knowledge and skill to the success of the company. In other words, you work productively with other people in your company.

Level 3: Competent Manager

At this stage, you are able to organise your team effectively to achieve goals.

Level 4: Effective Leader

Here you are able to stimulate a department to meet performance objectives and achieve a vision.

Level 5: Great Leader

At the top level, you possess all the qualities of the previous levels, plus you harbour a unique blend of humility and will of true greatness.

It is always a good idea for you to constantly reflect on your leadership.

If you desire to climb up the ladder, and reach a higher level of leadership, you may find it helpful to study some core leadership theories.

In the following part, we would like to introduce you to four basic, yet essential, leadership theories.

Core Leadership Theories

Trait Theories: What are the traits that make a great leader?

As suggested by the name, the Trait Leadership Theory offers us a tool to distinguish the traits that are commonly possessed by great leaders.

Dr. Gordon Allport, a psychologist, is one of the most famous promoter of the theory.

In a nutshell, the Trait Leadership Theory is founded on the belief that all great leaders possess intrinsic traits that make them a great leader; in other words, a leader is born, not made.

With this belief, the Trait Leadership Theory focuses on analysing the mental, physical and social traits of great leaders in order to understand the combination of traits shared among great leaders.

Some of these traits include [1]:

  • Adaptable to situations
  • Cooperative
  • Decisive
  • Self-confident
  • Tolerate of stress

From here, we can see the Trait Leadership Theory tells us not only intelligence or skills account for a great leader, but the personal traits are also important indicators.

This theory can help your leadership, as by understanding the traits of a great leader, you will be able to spot out any potential leader in your team. They are competent candidates who are worth of your cultivation; they are also capable of higher workload. In this light, this theory helps you allocate your man resource more efficiently.

However, the Trait Leadership Theory has its shortfalls. One should be reminded that the theory was developed in 1930s. During that period of time, any practice of personality measurement was still immature. In other words, one may argue that the studies of the traits are not accurate. Besides, in Gordon Allport’s study, the samples of the study were average managers, not “great leaders”. For that, one may argue the traits are not representative enough.

Despite these shortfalls, the value of the Trait Leadership Theory lies in the fact that it is one of the first theories that combine leadership study and psychology; it also founded later theories of leadership, with Behavioral Theory being one of them, which we are going to talk about in the next section.

Behavioral Theory: What does a great leader do?

Different from the Trait Leadership Theory, the Behavioral Theory describes leadership in terms of their behaviors, instead of their physical or mental traits.

The Behavioral Theory believes that great leadership is a result of effective role behaviors. In this light, we can say that by learning the effective behaviors, everyone can be a great leader: a great leader is made, not born.

In 1930s, one of the scholars in this domain of study, Kurt Lewin, divided the leader’s behaviors into three types. They are:

Autocratic Leader

The autocratic leaders make decision without consulting their teammates. Their behaviors are considered appropriate when it requires quick decision making, and when there is no need for team agreement for a successful outcome.

Democratic Leader

Contrary to the autocratic leaders, democratic leaders allow input from their teammates. This style of leadership is especially important when team agreement is significant. However, it should be noted that it is difficult to manage if there are too many different perspectives and ideas offered by teammates.

Laissez-faire Leader

Laissez-faire leaders allow their teammates to make many decisions. This style of leadership is considered appropriate when the team is capable, is motivated, and is able to run without close supervision. However, sometimes, Laissez-faire leaders may be considered languid by their teammates.

As a matter of fact, in the field of the Behavioral Theory, many studies were done to find which style is the best in leading a community. For example, in 1999, Naylor had conducted a systematic comparison between autocratic and democratic leading behaviors.

The implication of the Behavioral Theory to you as a leader is that you can learn the behaviors of great leaders, and try to apply in your work field.

However, while the Behavioral Theory analyses the great leaders’ behaviors, which is an aspect not covered by the Trait Leadership Theory, it still misses analysing an important element: the context in which the leaders exist.

The next theory we are going to introduce covers the aspect that the Behavioral Theory has not yet covered.

Contingency Theory: What is the type of leadership this context requires?

The Contingency Theory studies which style of leadership is best suited for a particular working context.

This theory believes there is no single leadership that is appropriate in all situations. That is to say, success is dependent on several variables, including the leadership style, the qualities of the teammates, and the situational features (Charry, 2012). Using the words of Lamb (2013), the Contingency Theory states that the effective leadership depends on a balance between the leader’s styles and that demanded by the situation.

To get a sense about what the Contingency Theory is about, we may look at two of the models proposed by scholars in this field.

Fiedler Model

The Fiedler Model was proposed in 1960s by Fred Fiedler, a scientist studying leadership. The Fiedler Model states that effective leadership is dependent on two factors: the leader’s leadership style, and the power of control given to the leader by the situation. The model introduces three steps to determine these two factors:

  • Identifying the leadership style
  • Defining the situation
  • Matching the leader and the situation

Cognitive Resource Theory

The Cognitive Resource Theory was proposed by Fred Fredier and Joe Garcia in 1987. It is a refinement of the Fiedler Model. The Cognitive Resource Theory believes that stress unfavorably affects one’s leadership. The leader’s intelligence and experience are two elements that overcome the negative effect of stress. The theory tells us that in a low-stress situation, the leader’s intelligence is more effective to overcome stress; meanwhile, in a high-stress situation, the leader’s experience is more effective to overcome stress.

Power-and-Influence Theory: How should a leader make the best use of power and influence?

The final theory we would like to introduce to you is the Power-and-Influence Theory. This theory takes a different approach from the above three theories. This theory focuses on analysing how a leader can encourage his or her teammates to work by using his or her power and influence.

To let you understand more about the theories that fall under the Power-and-Influence Theory, we would like to introduce two models.

French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power

This model was proposed by French and Raven in 1959. It introduces five forms of power that account for the influence of a leader. These five forms of power include:

  • Legitimate: the formal right to make command
  • Reward: the ability to compensate others
  • Coercive: the ability to punish others
  • Referent: the personal attractiveness
  • Expert: the knowledge and skills in the field

The implication of this model is that if you hope to increase your power and influence over your teammates, you are encouraged to improve one of the above domains. According to French and Raven, it is better to invest the leader’s power on Referent and on Expert. Out of the two domains, it is better to invest one’s power on Expert, as it is about the knowledge and skill in the job field, which is the most legitimate source of power.

Transactional Theory

This model is founded on the assumption that all people seek pleasurable experience, and avoid un-pleasurable experience. As a result, people are inclined to align themselves with those who can add to their values.

This model thus aims to teach you how to work on the human tendency, and form a mutually beneficial relation with the teammates, and encourage them to fulfil your command.

A Great Leader Should Know How To Motivate The Team As Well

After reading some core theories in the study of leadership, now we would like to demonstrate to you how to apply a leadership theory, and use it to motivate your teammates.

Two-Factor Theory

Two-Factor Theory was proposed by Frederick Herzberg in 1950s. It aims to analyse the causes of workers’ motivation and satisfaction in work.

In his study, Herzberg analysed 200 accountants and engineers who were asked about their positive and negative feelings about their work. Herzberg concluded that there are two factors governing workers’ sense of motivation and satisfaction in work.

The first factor is Motivator Factors. These are the factors which increase workers’ satisfaction and motivation. Examples of these include the enjoyment of work, and career progression.

The second factor is Hygiene Factors. These are the factors that could cause dissatisfaction when they are absent. For example, the company’s travel allowance may be one Hygiene Factor, as if it is suspended, workers may feel dissatisfied.

Even though the above two factors seem similar, Herzberg pointed out that they are different in the sense that the absence of Motivator Factors does not necessarily cause dissatisfaction, while the absence of Hygiene Factors causes dissatisfaction.

Application to your workplace

The Two-Factor Theory tells us that there are methods to improve employees’ motivation of work. And the way to do so is to improve the Motivator Factors, and to secure the Hygiene Factors.

In this light, you should first have a clear picture about the situation of your community, such as the policies, the benefits, and the facilities of your company.

Then, in order to improve your teammates’ motivation, you should try to improve the Motivator Factors. For example, if you recognise the modernist architecture of your office motivates your teammates to work, you can enlarge the area that is built by this architectural style.

In addition to the Motivator Factors, you are also reminded to secure the Hygiene Factors. For example, if you recognise that your teammates will be dissatisfied if the air-conditioning is broken down, then you may want to allocate more resource to the maintenance of your office’s air-conditioners.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The Hierarchy of Needs theory was introduced by psychologist Abraham Maslow through his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in 1943. The key of the theory is that individual’s basic needs must be satisfied before the other higher needs are motivated to achieve.

According to Maslow, there are basically 5 levels of the hierarchy:

The first level is Physiological. It is the lowest level of needs, such as food, water and shelter. These needs are the most basic needs that a person must need to survive.

The second level is Safety. It included personal and financial security, as well as health and wellbeing. Some common examples are freedom from war, violence, job security and work safety.

The third level is belongingness. It represents the needs for friendship, relationships and family.

The fourth level is esteem. Esteem means the need for the person to feel confident, and be respected by others. Approval of families and friends, recognition and high status are some examples belong to esteem.

The fifth level is self-actualization. It is the highest level of all the other needs. It is the desire to achieve as much as you can and become the most you can be. It included achievements in education, religion, personal growth and advancement.

Maslow proposed that it is pointless to achieve or even aware of lofty goals like religion and personal growth when you are dying of starvation or facing life threat.

Application to the workplace

The Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be applied to workplace for boosting productivity.

The founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain and head of Hospitality at Airbnb, Chip Conley, transformed his business through the uses of the theory.

He gathered a group of 8 housekeepers and asked if someone from Mars came down and saw them doing as a housekeeper, what would those people call them. The housekeepers turnout came up with “The Serenity Sisters”, “The Clutter Busters” and “The Peace of Mind Police”.

This exercise let the housekeepers understood their own importance with a thought that they were creating a shelter for traveler instead of simply cleaning a room. Knowing the value of self, they felt respected and gained motivation to work harder. As a result, efficiency was highly lifted.

There are no denies there are so much advantages by attaining the highest level of the Hierarchy of Needs. Yet, before enjoying the benefits that the achievement of the highest needs brings you, it is important to ensure the lower needs are being satisfied. If the workers are lack of shelter, short of time to focus on family and friends, having financial instability, they can hardly realize their own value and make the most out of them.

Featured photo credit: Flaticon via flaticon.com


[1] Handbook of leadership: A survey of literature

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