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6 Leadership Theories and How to Apply Them – Derik Timmerman

6 Leadership Theories and How to Apply Them

By March 22, 2020 April 13th, 2020 No Comments

Who’s the best leader you’ve ever followed? Easy to recall, I’m sure.

Now for the harder question: what was it that made him or her so effective?

The essence of good leadership–and how that translates into practice–remains pretty elusive in spite of the vast amount written on the subject.

We all know what it feels like to be led well. That soaring feeling at the intersection of freedom, purpose, commitment, urgency, and fun.

Nailing down how to be the leader that creates that feeling is harder.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Even partially successful attempts to drill down into the essence of good leadership can yield tremendous benefits in your personal and professional life.

So… what is the essence of good leadership? We will explore 6 theories:

  1. Transformational Leadership
  2. Leader-Member Exchange Theory
  3. Adaptive Leadership
  4. Strengths-Based Leadership
  5. Servant Leadership
  6. Biblical Leadership

Let’s take a deeper look at each of the 6 theories.

1. Transformational Leadership: Good leaders connect followers to a collective good.

In 1978 James MacGregor Burns published Leadership, a canonical book in the leadership genre. Burns sets up a dichotomy between transactional and transformational leadership.

  • Transactional leadership: Leaders influence followers by connecting present actions to future personal goods.
  • Transformational leadership: Leaders influence followers by connecting present actions to future collective goods.

Burns emphasizes that there’s a moral sense to transformational leadership that’s missing from transactional leadership.

Whereas transformational leadership aims to deliver something of value to all (e.g., improved health, reduced pollution, public safety, etc.), transactional leadership offers something strictly to the individual (e.g., monetary compensation, job advancement, continuing education, etc.).

According to Burns, creating lasting values is the hallmark of enduring leadership. Followers clearly articulate a few core values, are fiercely devoted to them, and guard them from being eclipsed by other concerns.

Leaders who ascribe to this theory of leadership aim to:

  • Ideologically influence: Communicate ideas in a way that captivates adoption and advocacy.
  • Inspirationally motivate: Convince prospective followers that they can make a difference.
  • Intellectually stimulate: Stretch people to think outside the box and challenge assumptions.
  • Individually care: Give people the sense that they matter.

Transformational Leadership in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is in rallying people toward realizing a collective good.

2. Leader-Member Exchange Theory: Good leaders gather an effective in-group.

Some thinkers take a more social view of leadership. Think back to high school: remember lunch tables?

Some lunch tables were for the cool kids. Some were for the losers. Some kids didn’t have any lunch table at all.

According to Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX), every lunch table, group, team, department, or organization has its in-people and its out-people.

The in-people get along well with the leader, share commonalities (e.g., personality, values, strengths, interests, sense of humor), and are willing to expend more discretionary energy for the leader.

The out-people, however, tend to be misaligned with the leader, question him or her, and be suspicious of the direction the leader is going.

Leaders who ascribe to LMX aim to:

  • Play up the aspects of one’s own personality, values, and vision that attract effective in-people.
  • Remove barriers for high-potential out-people to become in-people.
  • Coach (or, if necessary, remove) ineffective in-people.
  • Make maximum use of the discretionary energy of the innermost circle.

LMX in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is gathering and deploying an effective in-group.

3. Adaptive Leadership: Good leaders mobilize people to take on tough challenges.

Some problems are easy to solve. Many aren’t.

According to the Adaptive Leadership model, the ability to mobilize problem solving is the hallmark of a leader.

Having a certain title or position of authority is no guarantee of successful mobilization of people to solve tough problems. In fact, Adaptive Leadership advocates emphasize that some of the most effective leaders marshal their influence from the middle of the organization.

In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz offers six behaviors adaptive leaders can apply:

  1. Get on the balcony: step out of the fray to gain a new perspective.
  2. Identify adaptive challenges: adaptive challenges usually stir emotions; recognizing the nature of these challenges and their complexities helps clarify the path forward.
  3. Regulate distress: create a safe emotional space for addressing the tension of adaptive challenges.
  4. Maintain disciplined attention: encourage focus.
  5. Give the work back to the people: seek collaborative approaches.
  6. Project leadership voices from below: listen especially to out-group members, the marginalized, and the external community.

Adaptive Leadership in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is effectively mobilizing people to solve tough problems.

4. Strengths-Based Leadership: Good leaders unleash followers’ unique strengths.

Many leaders approach the task of leadership with a mindset of fixing what’s broken. Broken systems, broken techniques, possibly even broken people.

Strengths-based Leadership (SBL) aims to turn that philosophy completely on its head. According to SBL, someone can improve a strength far more efficiently than they could ever improve a weakness. For the same time and energy a leader would use to improve a follower’s weak skill from a 3 to a 5, she could help the follower improve a strong skill from a 30 to a 50.

For the same time and energy a leader would use to improve a follower's weak skill from a 3 to a 5, she could help the follower improve a strong skill from a 30 to a 50. Click To Tweet

In the years following the introduction of SBL, numerous tools have emerged for helping leaders and followers identify their strengths. Equipped with these tools, leaders who ascribe to SBL aim to:

  • Identify their own strengths and lead from a place of strength.
  • Help followers improve their weaknesses just enough so that they’re not held back.
  • Spend the bulk of their time and energy helping followers identify and unleash their strengths.

SBL in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is identifying and unleashing one’s own strengths and the strengths of others.

5. Servant Leadership: Good leaders shift the power to those who are being led.

Although the idea of Servant Leadership has been around in one form or another for a long time, Robert Greenleaf appears to be the first to have coined the term.

The main idea of Servant Leadership is that leaders ought to put the needs of others over their own self-interests.

Northouse and Spears offer the following 10 characteristics of a servant leader:

  1. Listening: servant leaders must listen first.
  2. Empathy: servant leaders must “stand in the shoes” of another person.
  3. Healing: servant leaders care about the well-being of their followers.
  4. Awareness: servant leaders are attuned to the contexts of others.
  5. Persuasion: servant leaders offer clear and persistent communication to advance change.
  6. Conceptualization: servant leaders are visionary and provide a clear sense of goals and direction.
  7. Foresight: servant leaders anticipate the future.
  8. Stewardship: servant leaders take responsibility for their role as a leader.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: servant leaders are committed to help others develop.
  10. Building community: servant leaders pursue unity and relatedness with others.

Servant Leadership in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is serving the people one is entrusted to lead.

6. Biblical Leadership: Good leaders model the example of Jesus.

A hybrid of the above five theories of leadership is what I call Biblical Leadership.

Story after story, the Bible offers examples of leaders whose successes and failures provide today’s leaders countless lessons for leading effectively. These include the stories of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, Mary, Peter, and Paul.

All these stories point toward and culminate in the story of the greatest Leader of all, Jesus of Nazareth.

Could a Jewish carpenter’s son from 2,000 years ago have anything to offer in a theory of leadership?

In this one life, we see all five of the above theories merged into one perfect personification of leadership.

  • Transformational Leadership: Jesus rallied his followers around the highest collective good, what he called the “kingdom of heaven.”
  • Leader-Member Exchange Theory: Rather than diffuse his efforts, Jesus concentrated on a few disciples, a specific in-group who would carry on his work to make more disciples.
  • Adaptive Leadership: Jesus came to save the least and the lost and mobilized them to save others.
  • Strengths-Based Leadership: Jesus promised that when he departed, the Holy Spirit would bestow gifts (strengths) on his people for the purpose of building up the church.
  • Servant Leadership: Jesus willingly gave his life for his followers, suffering the cruel death all people deserve in our place.

Leaders who ascribe to the model of Biblical Leadership aim to:

  • Become an apprentice of Jesus, learning from the Bible how to lead like he did.
  • Acknowledge their failures and trust God to transform their heart and mind more into the likeness of Jesus.
  • Embracing the suffering and persecution sure to come from living and leading like Jesus.

Biblical Leadership in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is following Jesus.

Biblical Leadership in a nutshell: the essence of good leadership is following Jesus. Click To Tweet

What Do You See?

So those are the primary views. There are many, many more, of course–hundreds of books are being published every year that add to this list of theories.

Which of these resonate most with you?

Are there others you’ve found more compelling in your own leadership journey?