People have been attempting to define leadership and identify those qualities that make a great leader for almost as long as the discipline of psychology has existed. Throughout the years, leadership has been defined according to factors like type, situation, individual characteristics and relationships with followers. Many leadership theories have been developed, but no one theory takes precedence over the rest, and opinions are still divided in the psychological community as to which theory is the most valid.
Several different leadership styles have also been identified dividing people into several categories including dictators, democratic or participative leaders, authoritarian or autocratic leaders and free reign or laissez-faire leaders.
Examples of leadership theories in psychology include:
a) The Functional Theory, where the leader’s most useful trait is to ascertain the needs of a group so that it can function correctly;
b) The Environmental Leadership Theory, where leadership is defined from a group dynamics point of view is said to promote the creation of self-sustaining environments that facilitate the group’s performance.
Theories that speculate about the origin of the personality traits that make an effective leader include:
c) The Great Man Theory, which states that a successful leader is born with all required leadership traits already in place;
d) The Behavioral Leadership Theories, which state that anyone can learn the traits required for great leadership; and
e) The Trait Theory, which echoes the Great Man Theory, and which speculates that leadership qualities may actually be genetic and capable of being physically inherited.
At odds with those theories that emphasize characteristics are those that spotlight the task to be performed and the environment in which they are to be performed. These include:
f) Situational Theories, which suggest that the leadership style that is manifested by the person in charge is dependent on what type of situation he or she has to deal with; and
g) Contingency Theories, which focus on the characteristics of the environment in which the situation that has to be dealt with exists and how the leader interacts with these environmental factors.
Other theories focus more on the relationship between leaders and their followers and these include:
h) Relationship Theories where a leader/follower relationship is such that the leader’s behavior inspires the follower to emulate he or she to successfully complete the given task;
i) The Transactional, or Management, Theories define leadership through the application of the reward and punishment system. Examples of the application of these theories are most often found in corporate situations; and
j) The Participative Theories that are the opposite to the rather autocratic Management Leadership Theories and that are based on co-operation between leaders and followers where the leader chooses to accept group input and encourages problem solving through co-operative means.
There is almost a different leadership theory to suit every leader, every group and every situation that requires a leader.