Google the word “leadership” and the search will return 360 million results. This staggeringly large number points out one “truism” about leadership – it is a topic about which much has been said and written.
A brief survey of even the first page of Web results will reveal that there are nearly as many opinions on the subject of leadership as there are people talking about it. One of the things about leadership that I often strikes me in the 30 years that I have focused on the topic is that, despite the fact that so much has been said for so long on leadership (one of the earliest writers on leadership was Plato who lived between 424 to 348 B.C.!), there seems to be no one commonly accepted definition of what leadership actually is.
And yet, clearly, leadership is important to us. As humans, we seek out leadership, “know it when we see it”, and rely on it to thrive and succeed in so many settings, be it in work, school, or civil society in general.
While there is no one accepted definition, detailed behavioral description, or methodology to discover and train leaders, it’s worth understanding the general schools of thought on what leadership is and how it works.
The full scope and range of leadership theories can’t be summarized without some degree of simplification and exclusion, but my historical research (and personal views – more on this later) on the subject of leadership lend itself to four broad categories:
1. Trait theories – leadership is based on a cluster of individual attributes or traits
2. Style theories – there are multiple ways to lead and each approach consists of a group of behaviors that define the style
3. Situational theories – based on the idea that effective leadership is completely based on context, and that no single optimal psychological profile of a leader exists
4. Contingency theories – based on an amalgam of the three previous theories, contingency theories propose that effective leaders should and do adopt different styles depending upon the situation
Nearly three decades ago, during my days as a corporate executive, I probably fell into the first camp, believing that leadership was simply a collection of certain traits that certain people had and other people didn’t. But over the years, my views on the subject have changed.
In working with executives, entrepreneurs, coaches, and teams of all types, my business partner Gary Jordan and I have found each of these approaches to be incomplete when viewed as “the answer” to leadership. That’s why it’s so important to explore each of these theories, in addition to an approach to the subject that has proven most useful to us in helping people develop their natural leadership skills.
But first, you can gain a lot of insight into the subject just by asking yourself a few questions, based on the truth of your own experiences:
Is leadership inborn? (Do certain people have it, and others don’t?) Can leadership be learned? Can different types of people be leaders in different ways?
Do certain situations make leaders out of anyone? And do different situations call for different types of leadership skills?
Assess your answers to those questions, and then we will begin dissecting the theories.