Formal Leadership Theories

Formal Leadership Theories

Formal Leadership Theories

Why are some people successful in their leadership roles than others? Formal leadership theories try to answer this question by focusing on key characteristics of leaders. They also inform on certain behaviours that individuals adopt to become great leaders. Notably, the suitability of a style depends on different situations. For instance, based on the culture of the people, one style may be more effective than the other.

Decades ago, it was widely accepted that great leadership is an inherent ability. Thus, effective leaders were considered to be born with skills that could not be passed from one person to another through learning and exposure. Although the formal leadership theories can be learnt, having certain personality traits can be an added advantage. Understanding the ideas can help you be more diligent in your role.

So what are the formal leadership theories? Psychologists have been interested in analyzing the qualities of great leaders and have come up with several leadership theories. Early theories examined the differences between leaders and their subordinates. However, the subsequent approaches, commonly known as formal leadership theories, consider other variables such as competencies and situational factors. The following are the major types of formal leadership theories.

Transformational leadership theory

This is perhaps the most popular and most recent leadership theory. A leader establishes a vision that they share with the subordinates and tries to inspire them to bring change into the organization. A transformative leader portrays charisma and motivates followers. The theory also requires empowerment and inspiration as key elements for success. Transformative leaders believe that the only way to achieve organizational goals is by taping the potential of the followers. Thus, much of the time is spent influencing subordinates.

Transactional leadership theory

Unlike transformational leadership theory, transactional leadership theory is concerned with improving performance through supervision. The International Review of Management and Business Research states that the style of leadership promotes compliance of subordinates by issuing rewards or punishment. The leader focuses on processes and may not be visionary. Being more managerial requires followers to adhere to the organization’s goals, structure, and culture. The style is mainly effective when handling an emergency and solving a crisis.


What are the five theories of leadership?

Great man theory


This theory is consistent with the narrative “born to lead.” The term great man was assigned to the theory since it was developed at a period when men were perceived as leaders. Additionally, it was mainly applied in institutions such as the military-dominated by men. It insinuates that some leaders appear greater than others because they were born with characteristics needed in the field, such as confidence, charisma, and social skills such as communication and interpersonal skills. Thus, the ability to lead is inherent, and some people are destined to inspire others. The theory creates the perception that some people cannot become effective leaders as they do not possess the inborn traits that constitute a great leader. Unlike most leadership theories, it supports nature rather than nurture.

Situational theory

The theory proposes that great leaders make decisions based on the factors affecting their situation. Therefore, the leadership model may be appropriate in certain conditions compared to others. Research shows that the theory has been effective in improving productivity as leaders must access employees and determine their level of commitment when completing a task. Since the leader also discovers the values and characteristics of the followers, the process promotes openness and independence among employees when making decisions in a situation where all staff members are skilled and experts, a democratic style is more suitable. In contrast, the authoritarian style may be needed in a group where only the leader is skilled.

Behavior theory

This theory opposed the claims made in Great Man theory and proposed that leadership is learnt; hence no person is born a leader. Thus, it upholds the decisions and actions of leader rather than the internal or mental qualities. Based on the theory, individuals who want to become great leaders can learn through observation or teachings. Researchers of the theory attempt to identify different behaviour patterns of successful or failed leaders and use the information to teach others.


Relationship leadership theory

Formal Leadership Theories

The theory focuses on leaders who achieve success by enhancing interaction with followers. Such leaders take the role of mentors, and they may engage in scheduled conversations or meetings to understand the needs of the staff. Using the theory is to create a positive environment and make work enjoyable for everyone. This may increase levels of motivation and overall productivity. Critics argue that the theory may not be applicable in large organizations where a leader has to establish a relationship with every employee. The relationships set may also get in the way of work if an employee causes problems and the leader is too keen to demand accountability.

Concluding remarks

Leadership can be evaluated in different ways ranging from the leader’s personality to the characteristics of the followers. The formal leadership theories show that many factors determine why some people are great leaders compared to others. However, one can learn from each theory to increase their skills.

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