In this lesson, you’ll learn about the four classical leadership theories: trait theory, behavior theory, contingency theory, and transformational theory. In the end, you can test your understanding of these theories with a quiz.

Classical Leadership Theories

Age-old debates surrounding leadership posits questions like, ‘What characteristics make someone a leader?’ and ‘Are leaders born or made?’ There have been many theories concerning what makes a leader a leader – the most widely known leadership theories are trait theory, behavior theory, contingency theory, and transformational theory. Let’s discuss these theories now.

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Trait Theories

First, let’s look at the trait theory. Some theorists believe that there are certain traits, or personal characteristics, that leaders have and that others do not. These traits include:

  • Charisma
  • Intelligence
  • Self-confidence
  • Determination
  • Integrity
  • Energy
  • Sociability

Trait theory is useful in identifying leadership potential in people. Many organizations also use this principle to help make hiring decisions; however, this theory has been highly criticized for its simplicity and exclusion of many other factors. Critics of the theory challenge the notion that people who have these qualities will make good leaders, and those that do not possess these traits cannot become effective leaders.

Behavior Theories

Behavior theories focus on what leaders do, as opposed to who they are. Leadership behaviors can be divided into two dimensions: task-oriented behaviors and people-oriented behaviors. One famous behavior theory is the managerial grid model developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton in the early 1960s.

Its premise is that the extent the leader focuses on these dimensions determines his or her leadership style. Some leaders are more concerned with getting the tasks at hand completed successfully. Other leaders favor creating solid interpersonal relationships with their employees. For example, if you have a high concern for the task and achieving results coupled with little concern for maintaining relationships with people, you would be an authority-obedience manager. Consider a time when you were in a leadership position – what was your leadership style?

Contingency Theories

Contingency theories suggest that leaders behave differently depending on the situation. For example, a leader may use a team approach on a day-to-day basis; however, during periods of crisis, he or she may choose to become more authoritative. The most effective leaders are those who can be flexible and adapt to a wide variety of situations. Can you think of a time when you had to change your leadership style to fit the situation?

Transformational Theories

Transformational theories are concerned with how leaders motivate, stimulate, and inspire others. Nearly synonymous with transformational leadership is the personality trait charisma. They use this trait to inspire others, and they set high moral standards and high expectations for their followers. These leaders have a clear vision, and they empower others to reach their full potential. In essence, transformational leaders are able to transform followers into better people. Some well-known transformational leaders are Gandhi and Oprah Winfrey.

Lesson Summary

There are many theories about leadership characteristics and behaviors. Most theories fall into four categories: trait, behavior, contingency, and transformational theories. There is no right or wrong leadership style, though learning different theories of leadership can help you to improve your overall effectiveness as a leader.