Core Leadership Theories

Learning the Foundations of Leadership 

Core Theories of Leadership

Understand core leadership theories.

© iStockphoto/DNY59

Why are some leaders successful, while others fail?

The truth is that there is no "magic combination" of characteristics that makes a leader successful, and different characteristics matter in different circumstances. 

This doesn't mean, however, that you can't learn to be an effective leader. You just need to understand the various approaches to leadership, so that you can use the right approach for your own situation.

One way of doing this is to learn about the core leadership theories that provide the backbone of our current understanding of leadership. We explore these in this article.


Our article on Leadership Styles   explores common leadership styles that have emerged from these core theories. These include the "transformational leadership" style, which is often the most effective approach to use in business situations.

The Four Core Theory Groups

Let's look at each of the four core groups of theory, and explore some of the tools and models that apply with each. (Keep in mind that there are many other theories out there.)

1. Trait Theories – What Type of Person Makes a Good Leader?

Trait theories argue that effective leaders share a number of common personality characteristics, or "traits."

Early trait theories said that leadership is an innate, instinctive quality that you do or don't have. Thankfully, we've moved on from this idea, and we're learning more about what we can do to develop leadership qualities within ourselves and others.

Trait theories help us identify traits and qualities (for example, integrity, empathy, assertiveness, good decision-making skills, and likability) that are helpful when leading others.

However, none of these traits, nor any specific combination of them, will guarantee success as a leader.

Traits are external behaviors that emerge from the things going on within our minds – and it's these internal beliefs and processes that are important for effective leadership.

We explore some of the traits and skills that you need to be a good leader in our articles What a Real Leader Knows  , Level 5 Leadership  , and What is Leadership?  

2. Behavioral Theories – What Does a Good Leader Do?

Behavioral theories focus on how leaders behave. For instance, do leaders dictate what needs to be done and expect cooperation? Or do they involve their teams in decision-making to encourage acceptance and support?

In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin developed a framework based on a leader's behavior. He argued that there are three types of leaders:

  1. Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. This style of leadership is considered appropriate when decisions need to be made quickly, when there's no need for input, and when team agreement isn't necessary for a successful outcome.
  2. Democratic leaders allow the team to provide input before making a decision, although the degree of input can vary from leader to leader. This style is important when team agreement matters, but it can be difficult to manage when there are lots of different perspectives and ideas.
  3. Laissez-faire leaders don't interfere; they allow people within the team to make many of the decisions. This works well when the team is highly capable, is motivated, and doesn't need close supervision. However, this behavior can arise because the leader is lazy or distracted; and this is where this style of leadership can fail.

Clearly, how leaders behave affects their performance. Researchers have realized, though, that many of these leadership behaviors are appropriate at different times. The best leaders are those who can use many different behavioral styles, and choose the right style for each situation.

Our article "Laissez Faire" versus Micromanagement   looks at how you can find the right balance between autocratic and laissez-faire styles of leadership, while our article on the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid   helps you decide how to behave as a leader, depending on your concerns for people and for production.

3. Contingency Theories – How Does the Situation Influence Good Leadership?

The realization that there is no one correct type of leader led to theories that the best leadership style depends on the situation. These theories try to predict which style is best in which circumstance.

For instance, when you need to make quick decisions, which style is best? When you need the full support of your team, is there a more effective way to lead? Should a leader be more people-oriented or task-oriented? These are all questions that contingency leadership theories try to address.

Popular contingency-based models include House's Path-Goal Theory   and Fiedler's Contingency Model  .

You can also use the Leadership Process Model   to understand how your situation affects other factors that are important for effective leadership, and how, in turn, these affect your leadership.

4. Power and Influence Theories – What is the Source of the Leader's Power?

Power and influence theories of leadership take an entirely different approach – these are based on the different ways that leaders use power and influence to get things done, and they look at the leadership styles that emerge as a result.

Perhaps the best-known of these theories is French and Raven's Five Forms of Power  . This model highlights three types of positional power – legitimate, reward, and coercive – and two sources of personal power – expert and referent (your personal appeal and charm). The model suggests that using personal power is the better alternative, and that you should work on building expert power   (the power that comes with being a real expert in the job) because this is the most legitimate source of personal power.

Another leadership style that uses power and influence is transactional leadership  . This approach assumes that people do things for reward and for no other reason. Therefore, it focuses on designing tasks and reward structures. While this may not be the most appealing leadership strategy in terms of building relationships and developing a highly motivating work environment, it often works, and leaders in most organizations use it on a daily basis to get things done.

Similarly, leading by example   is another highly effective way of influencing your team.

Effective Leadership Styles

As we mentioned above, transformational leadership   is often the best leadership style to use in business.

Transformational leaders show integrity, and they know how to develop a robust and inspiring vision of the future. They motivate people to achieve this vision, they manage its delivery, and they build ever stronger and more successful teams.

However, you'll often need to adapt your style to fit a specific group or situation, and this is why it's useful to gain a thorough understanding of other styles. Our article on Leadership Styles   takes a deeper look at the different styles that you can use.

Key Points

Over time, several core theories about leadership have emerged. These theories fall into four main categories:

  1. Trait theories.
  2. Behavioral theories.
  3. Contingency theories.
  4. Power and influence theories.

"Transformational leadership," is the most effective style to use in most business situations. However, you can become a more effective leader by learning about these core leadership theories, and understanding the tools and models associated with each one.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Add this article to My Learning Plan

Comments (23)
  • Yolande wrote This week
    Thanks Lori N Jay - we love the Mind Tools community too!

    Mind Tools Team
  • Lori N Jay wrote This week
    I love Mind Tools!!
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Thanks for making a great point, John.

    Mind Tools Team
  • John wrote This month
    Great leaders are transformational others are managers and organizers.
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Great to hear that you like the information we provided in the article.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Shainance wrote This month
    Behavioral theory and Contingency theory have been the most theories exercised by majority of leaders in almost all the organizations I have had to work.It pleases me to have the transformational theory in practice.
  • Sophia wrote Over a month ago
    Good information. The Transformational leadership style is more like the leadership I provide. I tend to lead by example. This article has provided tons of information that will help me to develop this style even more so, by integrating other styles as well.
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Kay, one of my colleagues - thank you Midgie - advised the appropriate format would be:

    Mind Tools (2014). Core Leadership Theories. Retrieved from

    Thanks for asking.
  • Kay wrote Over a month ago
    how do you site this article apa style
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi NWPortland1,
    It does indeed sound like you are facing some challenges at the moment, and considering some big decisions like relocating.

    I think it is a good thing that you are taking an extreme view and treating it like the steps one goes thru when someone dies or when trauma occurs This extreme view can help you ride those waves of ups and downs, knowing that your emotions may be all over the place, yet keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

    By continuing to take action towards clarifying what you want and where you want to go, and actually doing something, you will be able to surf those waves more easily! Change is inevitable both a work and elsewhere, so, being resilient and positive to get through them will be what helps you stand out from the crowd!

    Good luck with things and please let us know if you want to bounce around any ideas to help you through.

Show all comments

Where to go from here:

Join the Mind Tools Club

Click to join Mind Tools
Printer-friendly version
Return to the top of the page

Your Score
Create a Login to Save Your Learning Plan

This ensures that you don’t lose your plan.

Connect with…

Or create a Mind Tools login. Existing user? Log in here.
Log in with your existing Mind Tools details
Lost Username or Password
You are now logged in…

Lost username or password?

Please enter your username or email address and we'll send you a reminder.

Thank You!

Your log in details have been sent to the email account you registered with. Please check your email to reset your login details.

Create a Mind Tools Login
Your plan has been created.

While you're here, subscribe to our FREE newsletter?

Learn a new career skill every week, and get our Personal Development Plan workbook (worth $19.99) when you subscribe.

Thank You!

Please check your Inbox, and click on the link in the email from us. We can then send you the newsletter.