Theory Theorist(s) Timeframe
Great Man Theory Leaders are born not made / great leaders will arise when there is great need. Thomas Carlyle – Early research on leadership was based on the study of people who were already great leaders. These people were often from the aristocracy, as few from lower classes had the opportunity to lead. This contributed to the notion that leadership had something to do with breeding. 1840’s
Trait Theory People are born with the right combination of traits that are particularly suited to leadership. Ralph Stogdill – identified traits and skills critical for leaders. 1930’s – 1940’s
M. W. McCall and M. M. Lombardo – identified four primary traits by which leaders could succeed or “derail”: Emotional stability & composure; Admitting error; Good interpersonal skills; and Intellectual breadth.
Behavioral Theory Leadership is based in definable, learnable behavior Role Theory – (George Herbert Mead, Jacob L. Moreno, Talcott Parsons) A sociology concept borrowed for leadership theory. Leaders define their roles and expectations. 1940’s – 1950’s
Robert Blake and Jane Mouton’s Managerial Grid – Concern for People (Low (1) thru High (9) / Concern for Production People (Low (1) thru High (9) (task) Grid. Five leadership styles: Impoverished Management (1,1), Middle of the Road Management (5,5), Task Management (9,1), Team Management (9,9), and Country Club Management (9,1).
Participative Leadership Theory involvement of people in decision-making Lewin’s Leadership Styles – Autocratic, Democratic, & Laissez Faire 1940’s – 1950’s
Rensis Likert’s Leadership Styles – Exploitive Authoritative, Benevolent Authoritative, Consultantive, and Participative
Situational Leadership Theory Leaders here work on such factors as external relationships, acquisition of resources, managing demands on the group and managing the structures and culture of the group. Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership – Leadership style responds to follower development level (S1: Telling/Directing; S2: Selling/Coaching; S3: Participating/Supporting; S4: Delegating/Observing). 1960’s
Vroom and Yetton’s Normative Model – Decision quality and decision acceptance drive the decision process. Vroom and Yetton defined five different decision procedures. Two are autocratic (A1 and A2), two are consultative (C1 and C2) and one is Group based (G2).
House’s Path-Goal Theory of Leadership – describes the way that leaders encourage and support their followers in achieving the goals they have been set by making the path they should take clear and easy. Supportive, Directive, Participative, Achievement-oriented Leadership.
Contingency Theory The main difference is that situational theory tends to focus more on the behaviors that the leader should adopt, given situational factors (often about follower behavior), whereas contingency theory takes a broader view that includes contingent factors about leader capability and other variables within the situation. Fiedler’s Least Preferred Co-worker (LPC) Theory – This is another approach that uses task- vs.-people-focus as a major categorization of the leader’s style. 1960’s
Cognitive Resource Theory – Intelligence and experience and other cognitive resources are factors in leadership success. Cognitive capabilities, although significant, are not enough to predict leadership success. Stress impacts the ability to make decisions.
Strategic Contingencies Theory – Intraorganizational power depends on three factors: problem skills, actor centrality and uniqueness of skill.
Transactional Leadership Theory Transactional leadership is based in contingency, in that reward or punishment is contingent upon performance. Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory – called LMX or Vertical Dyad Linkage Theory, describes how leaders in groups maintain their position through a series of tacit exchange agreements with their members. Role taking, Role making, and Routinization 1970’s
Transformational Leadership Theory People will follow a person who inspires them. A person with vision and passion can achieve great things. The way to get things done is by injecting enthusiasm and energy. Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory – Bass defined transformational leadership in terms of how the leader affects followers, who are intended to trust, admire and respect the transformational leader. 1970’s – 1980’s
Burns’ Transformational Leadership Theory – Burns’ view is that transformational leadership is more effective than transactional leadership, where the appeal is to more selfish concerns. An appeal to social values thus encourages people to collaborate, rather than working as individuals (and potentially competitively with one another). He also views transformational leadership as an ongoing process rather than the discrete exchanges of the transactional approach.
Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Participation Inventory – James Kouzes and Barry Posner developed a survey (The Leadership Practices Inventory) that presented a list of common characteristics of leaders and asked respondents to identify which of them were, in their experiences of being led by others, the seven top things they look for, admire and would willingly follow. The overall process identified is clearly transformational in style, which again has a strong focus on followers.
Process Leadership Theory – the work of the leaders is to focus on the wellbeing of others with a focus on some form of social responsibility. Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership -a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. 1970’s
Evolving Trends
Disruptive Leadership associated with changing the way people think, or the way in which things are done. The disruptive leader is someone who is always looking for better solutions and ways to establish new processes and wants to make an impact on the business as a whole, without worrying about shaking up things or altering the paths to obtain the necessary results.  Source:,to%20obtain%20the%20necessary%20results. 2019
Purpose-Driven Leadership is defined as creating a clarity of purpose to gain and sustain employee engagement, motivation and discretionary effort; through aligning beliefs and values to the organizational vision, mission, and objectives.  The purpose-driven leader taps into the deep well of intrinsic motivation inside themselves and those around them. They also inspire their teams to achieve extraordinary results.

Aaron Hurst – Co-Founder of Imperative

Author of The Purpose Economy and Fast Company Purposeful CEO series





Kahn, ZA, Nawaz, A, and Khan, I. (2016). Leadership Theories and Styles: A Literature Review. Journal of Resources Development and Management, Vol 16.

Cardona, P, Rey, C, and Craig, N. Purpose-driven Leadership. (2019).

Core Leadership Theories: Learning the Foundations of Leadership.

Leadership Descriptions, Definitions, Terminology. (September 3, 2020),,sources%20of%20a%20leader’s%20power.

Student Leadership And Development: A Panoramic View Of Trends And Possibilities. (January 2019)