Leadership Theories

A relatively recent phenomenon, the interest in leadership theories has been advanced by the desire to identify the characteristics, and behaviors, exhibited by historical leaders.  By understanding these characteristics, their successes and failures, in addition to the political and work environment they faced, the modern day worker can hope to replicate this success.

Three Leadership Theories

In this article, we'll take a look at three of the better-known leadership theories put forth by Max Weber (1948), James MacGregor Burns (1978), and Daniel Goleman (1995).  These three theorists will move from the development of the concept of transformational leadership through the beginnings of emotional intelligence.

Max Weber's Theory

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In Max Weber's theory, he wrote about three types of leaders: bureaucratic, charismatic, and traditional.  Weber was one of the first of the theorists to recognize that leadership itself was situational in nature, and that effective individuals needed to move dynamically from one type of leadership style to another to remain successful.

Weber also believed there were two basic paradigms within which leaders worked: transactions and transformations.  Weber believed that transactional leaders were those that worked within the existing systems or environment to achieve results.  For example, he theorized the bureaucrat is a transactional leader effective in using their knowledge, or legal authority, to achieve results.

Charismatic leaders were transformational in Weber's model.  These individuals were almost divine in nature, and were often compared to heroes.  A transformational leader was not afraid to approach things from an entirely different perspective, and in Weber's theory used personal charm or charisma to help them achieve their goals.

James MacGregor Burns' Theory

The model Burns described aligns with some of the thoughts of Weber.  To these he added his own insights into leaders and how they operated.  While both theories of Weber and Burns recognized transactional and transformational leadership types, Burns created an overarching dimension of moral versus amoral leaders.  The latter of which he felt were not true leaders.

Transactional Leaders

Among the transactional leadership styles, Burns went on to describe five different types of leaders:

  • Opinion Leaders:  individuals with the ability to sway public opinion
  • Bureaucratic Leaders:  individuals that hold position power over their followers
  • Party Leaders:  hold political positions or titles in a particular country
  • Legislative Leaders:  political leaders that are at work behind the scenes
  • Executive Leaders:  often described as the president of a country, not necessarily bound to a political party or legislators

Transformational Leaders

In addition to the five transactional forms mentioned above, Burns' theory went on to describe four transformational types too, including:

Goleman's Theory

In the theory of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman attempted to answer the question:  What are the elements that characterize a leader?  This was more of a behavioral approach to describing leadership than some of the previous work just described.  Goleman wanted to determine the behaviors that made people effective leaders.

Goleman's emotional intelligence is sometimes characterized as an emotional quotient, or EQ.  This idea was to supplement the thought behind an intelligence quotient or IQ.  He felt that intelligence was not enough to define a leader.  He believed there was something that separated them from mere intellectuals:  their emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

Goleman's leadership theory went on to describe five characteristics, or components, of emotional intelligence:

  • Self Awareness:  the ability to understand one's strengths and weaknesses
  • Social Skills:  how people relate to others and build rapport
  • Self Regulation:  the ability to think through consequences before reacting to a situation
  • Motivation:  a strong will, or a drive, to succeed
  • Empathy:  the ability to understand another person's point of view

Leadership Theory Today

In many ways, recent leadership theories build upon the work of earlier scholars.  This body of work has been improving as refinements are made to existing models.  The beneficiaries of all this research are those that apply what they learn to work environments, or to their lives outside the workplace.  As is the case with many learning experiences, one's leadership abilities stem from the total of all lessons learned via the written word, as well as the successes and the mistakes made along the way.


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