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10 Leadership Theories


"There's nothing so practical as a good theory."  -Dr. Kurt Lewin

To fully understand where we are on our leadership journey it's important to see how far we've come in our thinking about leadership.  Here are 10 of the most common leadership theories...

1. The Great Man Theory (1840s)

-The thought that Great Leaders are born...not developed.

2. The Trait Theory of Leadership (1930s - 1940s)

-The thought that there are ideal characteristics for Leaders.

3. The Skills Theory of Leadership (1940s - 1950s)

-The thought that there are ideal technical, personal and conceptual skills for both Managers and Leaders.

4. The Style Theories of Leadership (1940s - 1950s)

-The thought that adopting styles like being autocratic & demanding, democratic & participative or laissez fair & unengaged.  Ex. Managerial Grid; people friendly & performance oriented.

5. The Situational Leadership Theory (1960s)

-The thought that there isn't one-size-fits-all-model, leaders must adapt.

6. The Contingency Theory (1960s)

-The thought that since there isn't a one-size-fits-all-model, organizations must choose an appropriate leader.

7. Transactional Leadership Theory (1970s)

-The thought that people follow leaders based on 'transactions' inside a mix of rewards, incentives & punishments (quid pro quo approach).

8. Transformational Leadership Theory (1970s)

-The thought that leaders gain the commitment of others' by inspiring, encouraging & caring for them.

9. Leader-Member Exchange Theory (1970s)

-The thought similar to transactional theory, but stresses the presence of an ingroup and outgroup).

10. Servant Leadership Theory (1970s - 1980s)

-The thought that the leader starts by identifying the needs of the followers and views their primary role as serving others.

Of course, in each of these there are nuggets of wisdom that endure today.  But what emerges when we take a closer look at some of the things we expect from our leaders...

*Honesty / Forward-Looking / Competent / Inspiring

We also expect these character traits from our leaders...

*Courage / Integrity / Resilience / Generosity / Concern

We expect leaders to...

**Go First / Create Hope / Focus on Others

With this magnifying glass it's possible to see how our leadership expectations settle inside Situational, Transformational & Servant leadership theories.  If every follower is a volunteer & leaders engage in voluntary influence for others then leadership (in a digital world) will most of all require heightened self-awareness.  Self-awareness of how our behaviors project our intentions to help others manage better & lead well!

*From "The Leadership Challenge"

**From "The Greats on Leadership"

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I gathered some insights from an AI language (ChatGPT). It provided some relevant information. It also provided several suggestions for a name, one being “21st Century Servant Leadership.”

From ChatGPT:
Servant leadership theory has evolved significantly from its origins in the 1970s and 1980s to 2024. Initially proposed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, the theory emphasizes leaders serving their followers' needs, empowering them, and helping them develop and perform to their best abilities. Over the decades, several key developments have shaped servant leadership:

1. Expansion of Influence: Initially focused on organizational leadership, servant leadership principles have expanded to various fields, including education, healthcare, and community development.
2. Integration with Other Theories: Servant leadership has been integrated with other leadership theories, such as transformational and ethical leadership, highlighting its adaptive nature and compatibility with diverse organizational contexts.
3. Research and Validation: There has been growing empirical research validating the effectiveness of servant leadership in fostering employee satisfaction, organizational commitment, and overall performance.
4. Globalization and Diversity: With globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity becoming more prevalent, servant leadership has been adapted to address the challenges and opportunities presented by diverse workforces and global contexts.
5. Technological Advances: The rise of technology has influenced how servant leadership is practiced, with virtual teams and digital communication tools requiring leaders to adapt their servant leadership approaches.
6. Focus on Sustainability and Ethics: Contemporary servant leadership emphasizes sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and ethical decision-making, reflecting broader societal expectations and environmental concerns.
Overall, servant leadership theory has evolved to remain relevant in modern organizational settings, emphasizing empathy, collaboration, and ethical responsibility in leadership practices.


I like the idea Simon Sinek encapsulates in the phrase "Noble Cause".  A leader who goes first, proffers hope and focuses on others casts the vision of the Noble Cause, and people buy-in because they grasp the greater good outcome of their contribution to the cause, company, or idea.

Like the old story of the three stonemasons working, when asked what they are doing; one says he's laying bricks, the second says he's building a wall, and the third, and most engaged, said he's creating a cathedral worthy of the glory of God.  Same work, different perspective.

So what to call our contemporary leadership model:  How about  "The Noble Cause Leadership Theory".

Sidebar: I would love to collaborate with you Karl on leadership and team building efforts.  When not at work, I'm a writer and a photographer,  bilingual English/Spanish with a passion for equity and social healing.

I appreciate the summary.  What's filling that massive void from the 1980's until now??

The prevailing leadership model today includes the best of each theory, plus the traits you identified.  We just need to come up with a cool name for it.

Simon Sinek has a great book (or two) on leadership called 'The 5 Why's'.  And here's a good talk of his on leadership: How Great Leaders Inspire Action


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