Women in Leadership | theory

Five Leadership Theories and How to Apply Them (Part 2)

Center for Values-Driven Leadership Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders


Women in Leadership | theory

Understanding Theories of Leadership

In our earlier post, we explored Transformational Leadership and Leader-Member Exchange Theory. Here, we explore three additional leadership theories: Adaptive Leadership, Strengths Based Leadership, and Servant Leadership. We conclude with a discussion of the usefulness of leadership theory.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership, one of the most recent leadership theories to emerge, says a leader is someone who mobilizes people to take on tough challenges, like inclusiveness. Adaptive challenges are challenges where solutions aren’t readily apparent.

Adaptive leadership makes a distinction between leadership and authority. Authority is positional and requires power; leadership, in contrast, requires influence and the ability to mobilize. Yosko, our hospital CEO, found this: she held the title, but not the connections to tackle difficult challenges. Those connections had to be built before she could truly be the hospital’s leader. In the adaptive leadership model, the leaders are individuals who earn results through their influence. (For an example of its application, see this article.)

Activating adaptive leadership:

Individuals can show adaptive leadership through practicing six behaviors, identified by scholar Ronald Heifetz:

  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.

Learn about our new Online M.S. in Values-Driven Leadership Program, and find ways to apply leadership theory to your work.

Strengths-Based Leadership

Running as an undercurrent through many of these theories is the idea of strengths: an attribute or quality that makes an individual or group successful. In-group members are often valued by the leader for their specific strengths. When an adaptive leader “gives the work back to the people,” the leader is signaling trust in the people’s strengths and competency.

Strengths-Based Leadership is the concept of identifying and leveraging your own strengths, and the strengths of others, to achieve results. The concept draws from the field of positive psychology, and from the work of the Gallup Organization and their popular StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment.

Much of the research and discussion regarding strengths-based leadership centers around self-assessments of specific characteristics. Gallup proposes that strengths fall into four talent theme categories: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. Understanding your set of strengths, and those of your colleagues, can help you improve team cohesion and productivity because when we work in the area of our strengths, we often feel more engaged and energized.

Activating strengths-based leadership:

Strengths-based leadership is more of a mindset than a formal theory. To better understand the concepts, leaders should take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 or another assessment tool. Additionally, leaders should recognize and affirm the strengths of others, and find opportunities for people to work in their area of strength.

Servant Leadership

Our final theory to explore is servant leadership, which originated in the writings of Robert Greenleaf. Servant leadership requires leaders to place the needs of others over their own self-interests. Greenleaf believed leaders have a social responsibility to care for the disenfranchised and to serve first; he proposes shifting power to those who are being led.

Activating servant leadership:

Northouse, referencing Spears (2002), identifies 10 characteristics of a servant leader. Each implies behaviors a servant leader must pursue to activate this style of leadership. Perhaps unknowingly, these 10 factors are closely aligned with the steps hospital CEO Yosko (see the earlier article in this series) took to earn trust and influence.

  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.

The Usefulness of Leadership Theories

For scholars, understanding theories and models of leadership helps explain why some teams and leaders succeed and others don’t. Leaders can test different theories, or different pieces of theories, in the petri dish of their own companies, to find what works for them. And when something isn’t working in a company or on a team, the leadership theories here can help identify places where a shift in approach might lead to better results. For leaders in new roles, like hospital CEO Yosko was when she first began her career, they can help you identify where to start as well as the attitude with which to work.

You may have noticed while reading that many of the theories are related, and that the practice of one does not preclude the practice of another. It’s possible, for example, to be a transformational and adaptive leader who identifies the strengths of out-group members to bring them into the in-group, through servant leadership. Trying to do all that, however, sounds exhausting. Better, perhaps, to pick one theory to use as a lens through which to explore your own leadership. Find what is useful, test drive new applications, and adapt to fit the needs of your professional circumstances.

“There’s nothing so practical as good theory,” said Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology. Scholars and practitioners who are refining and testing leadership theories are proving Lewin’s words to be correct. For more information on these leadership theories, and many more, Peter Northouse’s “black book” is the definitive resource.


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.

More on Leadership Theory:


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

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