Great leaders can make great things happen. That statement applies as much to leaders who turn failing companies around as it does to those who start revolutions or win wars. If you could harness even a tiny fragment of a great leader’s power, you could do great things on a smaller scale in your own workplace. But just what is it that makes a leader great? Some theorists believe the qualities of leadership are innate, but most believe the characteristics and behaviors inherent in strong leaders can be learned.
Trait theories suggest that some people are born to be leaders. Among those traits identified as integral to strong leadership are assertiveness, decisiveness, dominance and adaptability. A key problem with trait theories is that they propose leadership traits are inherited, not learned. If this concept is true, then a lot of money has been wasted over the years on self-help books.
Behavioral theories focus on what leaders do or how they behave in specific situations. These theories suggest people can be trained to act or behave as leaders. Effective behaviors are classified under a variety of leadership styles, such as those that are task-oriented, people-oriented or participative. Task-oriented leaders focus on the structure of the organization and established procedures to get the job done. People-oriented leaders add a concern for followers. Participative leaders facilitate teamwork rather than simply directing what must be done. Which of these leaderships styles is most effective might depend on the type of organization, the task or project and characteristics of the employees.
Contingency theories build on behavioral theories, suggesting that certain behaviors are only effective depending on the situation at hand. Not all leadership behaviors will work in all situations. An excellent example of this theory in practice is seen in the armed forces. There are differences between behaviors exhibited by successful strategic officers compared with effective tactical officers. Tactical officers must be quick thinking and decisive, making split-second directives that can save or cost lives. Strategic officers must take more time, giving more consideration to all factors involved in the decision-making process.
Power and Influence Theories
Power and influence theories focus on the source of a leader’s power. Personal power is based on being recognized as an expert or being liked. Positional power is based on title and authority --- the leader’s ability to influence is based on the power source. Transactional leadership is an example of positional power through which the leader’s influence is based on the belief that followers do what they’re told to get rewards, such as regular paychecks or bonuses. Transformational leadership is an example of personal power. Transformational leaders are often considered charismatic --- they lead because others want to follow them.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.