Women in Leadership | theory

Five Leadership Theories and How to Apply Them

Center for Values-Driven Leadership Values-Driven Leaders

Women in Leadership | theory

When Kathleen Yosko, now CEO of Northwestern Medicine’s Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center, began her first job as a hospital president, there was no onboarding process planned, and no one to welcome her. Thinking it was a mistake, Yosko called her headquarters for advice. They told her, “Just do whatever a president does.”

Fortunately, Yosko was a seasoned leader and she intuited where to start. But for many others, our first forays into leadership felt much like Yosko’s first day: knowing how to start was not obvious. In many companies, individuals are promoted because of their technical skill – they are gifted engineers, accountants, or marketers – but that does not mean they are prepared for leadership. Leadership is a skill that can be learned, but it takes intentionality.

In the past half century, the study of leadership has grown, offering many new theories and frameworks for exploring what it means to be a leader, and how to do leadership well. In this article, we outline five current leadership theories, and offer resources and suggestions for integrating the theories into your own leadership practice. We will explore:

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

But First, A Quick Review of Leadership History

Before we begin, we need to put leadership theory and practice in the context of history, to understand how the field of study has evolved. The earliest theories of leadership were the Great Man Theories, which emerged in the late 1800s. (Perhaps you can see one primary fault with these theories, just from their name: they assumed only half the world’s population could even be considered for leadership.) The Great Man concept evolved into trait-based theories of leadership, which defined leadership by a leader’s characteristics, most of which were considered innate. You were either lucky enough to be born with them, or you weren’t. (Starting, first, with a Y chromosome.) For many of us, our first understanding of leadership may have aligned with these theories: leaders were often men with dominant personalities. We still see this theory at play unconsciously today, when someone is overlooked for a leadership role because of a quiet personality.

In the middle of the last century, the study of leadership shifted from the study of traits to the study of behaviors: not who the leader is but what the leader does. This allowed for an understanding that leadership could be developed in others. The most prominent leadership theories today build on this understanding, and begin to integrate the perspective of followers and the contextual circumstances in which leaders and followers interact. As business, and our understanding of human nature, grows more complex, leadership theories and frameworks should evolve to accommodate the new contexts and understandings.

Defining Leadership

Before we unpack contemporary theories of leadership, we need to define the term itself. Leadership theory scholar Dr. Peter Northouse defines leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” This definition makes clear that leadership is not a trait or behavior, and it is not a position. You are not made a leader by your job title, you are made a leader by your influence.

Finally, contemporary theories of leadership wrestle with the motivations of leaders: can you be a leader if your goal is selfish or even malicious? The classic question is, “Was Adolf Hitler a leader?” Theories of leadership must wrestle with the moral implications of a leader’s motivations. As you’ll see in several of the theories below, many theories would answer the question of Hitler with a firm no: Hitler was a dictator, but not a leader. He had positional authority, but did not show true leadership.

To begin our exploration of leadership theories, let’s start with one of the most researched and referenced today, transformational leadership.

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Transformational Leadership

The concepts of transformational leadership were brought to prominence by political sociologist James MacGregor Burns, in the late 1970s. Burns identified two types of leadership,

  • Transactional: where a leader influences others by what they offer in exchange, the transaction;
  • Transformational: where a leader connects with followers in such a way that it raises the level of motivation and morality.

Those two words – motivation and morality – are important, as it demands that transformational leaders be committed to a collective good. This may be a societal good, such as starting a community center or improving air quality, or a more personalized good, such as helping direct reports reach their own potential.

Activating transformational leadership:

If Kathleen Yosko, the hospital CEO who was thrown into leadership with little direction, wanted to employ transformational leadership strategies in her work, she might start with four factors researchers find present in transformational leaders. Northouse (2016) outlines these factors, which can serve as a starting place for test driving transformational leadership:

  1. Idealized influence, or charisma: Transformational leaders have an uncanny ability to make you want to follow the vision they establish.
  2. Inspirational motivation: Communication is a vehicle of inspiration for transformational leaders; they use words to encourage others and inspire action.
  3. Intellectual stimulation: Transformational leaders stretch others to think more deeply, challenge assumptions, and innovate.
  4. Individualized concern: Finally, while focused on the common good, transformational leaders show care and concern for individuals.

Leader-Member Exchange Theory

The concept of individualized concern has some carry-over to our second theory, Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX). To understand this theory, you only need to think back to junior high: almost every student could be divided into two categories, popular or unpopular.

LMX theory explains that in any group or organization, there are in-group members and out-group members. In-group members work well with the leader, have a personality that fits with the leader’s, and are often willing to take on extra tasks or responsibilities. Out-group members are less compatible with the leader; they may hold dissenting opinions, have clashing personalities, or be less willing to take on extra assignments. Not surprisingly, in-group members are more likely to earn promotions; out-group members are more likely to leave.

Activating LMX theory:

For followers, applying the concepts of LMX theory is easy: align yourself with the leader, take on extra tasks, and expect positive results. For leaders, LMX offers a greater challenge, because making your team as productive as possible will mean finding ways to turn out-group members into in-group members. Individualized concern, the final factor of transformational leadership, may offer one path to converting out-group members.

Additionally, LMX theory has important implications for improving diversity and inclusion. If minorities, women, or people with disabilities routinely identify as out-group members, the leader should ask the question, “What is required to be an in-group member here, and are we creating unintentional barriers for others?”

More on Leadership Theory

Continue learning about leadership theory in the next article in this series, where we’ll discuss Adaptive Leadership, Strengths Based Leadership, and Servant Leadership, along with the usefulness of leadership theories. >>Read more in part 2 of this series.


Download our Leadership Doctoral Program Booklet to learn about the Ph.D./D.B.A. program in values-driven leadership, for senior executives.

Amber Johnson is the Center’s Chief Communications Officer and Senior Research Associate; she is also a doctoral student in the Center’s Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership.

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Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, Inc.

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