There are nine major theories that comprise the progression of leadership theory from 1900 to the present, including trait, style, skill, situational, contingency, path-goal, LMX, transformational and servant (Northouse, 2004). These theories developed logically in that they first focused on the leader as an individual, then on the situation or context, and finally on others and the dynamics of the leader-follower relationship.
First, theories focused solely on the leaders. Trait, skills and style theories respectively examined leaders’ characteristics, capabilities and what they do (Northouse, 2004). Trait theory is often referred to as the “great man” theory, suggesting that leaders were inherently endowed with favorable attributes through genetics or birthright. Skills theory focused on the leaders’ abilities, suggesting as set of competencies was most important. Style theory again focused on the leaders but more on their behaviors and whether those behaviors were more task or relationship oriented.
Next, theories centered on the leaders’ adaptation to situation, context of leadership, or the followers they were leading (Northouse, 2004). Situational leadership focused on appropriate tactics or style adaptations for the situation, contingency theory choosing appropriate leaders based on a fit between their styles and the contexts in which they were to lead, and path-goal theory focused on leaders’ adaptation to use the style that most appropriate meet their followers’ motivational needs (Northouse).
Finally, theories began to focus the dynamics of the leader-follower relationship. Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory examines the “interactions between leaders and followers” (Northouse, 2004, p. 147) and transformational leadership theory examines how leaders and followers are changed through the process and relationship of leadership. Servant leadership suggests a radical change in the perspective of the leaders toward those who follow in that leaders should lead by serving followers rather than being served by them.
Jesus Christ advocated servant leadership: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Luke, 9:35) and “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Like many of our own journeys, we often begin self-centered, thinking about how we can become “great men” through whom we are or what we can do, only to realize that greatness in life and leadership is ultimately found in being others-centered—through service.
Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.