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The Common Theories of Leadership Exploratory Essay

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Updated: Aug 20th, 2019


Leadership is a crucial position that calls for attention not only of the leader but also of those whom he or she leads. Leadership determines the destiny of any country, organisation, or even self. Many studies have been conducted in an attempt to find out the best strategies that can be put in place to straighten this central field.

Consequently, since leadership cuts across all organisations despite their different goals and objectives, there have been so many theories that have been put in place to address the nature and exercise of leadership in various organisations. Therefore, this paper seeks to address some of these theories. Precisely, it will address in details the trait theory of leadership, the functional theory, and the situational theory as the basic theories of leadership.

Secondly, the paper will provide a thorough evaluation of two key leaders who are Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates with regard to a range of theories inclusive of the ones proposed above in an effort to show how a leader, as evidenced by these two, dictates the behaviour of individuals, teams, and or groups.

In addition, the paper will use the proposed leaders in a bid to show how they perceive their roles and or what has made them qualify to be worth emulating figures. Lastly, since the study of leadership is quite crucial for the incoming leaders, the paper will further present some key lessons that the reader aspiring to be a leader can learn from the leaders discussed.


The concept of leadership has been defined through a number of theories based on the individuals who first developed or utilised them. The function of leadership in an organisation or a company is to direct the functioning of the organisation. Therefore, it suffices to declare any organisation with poor leadership as one that is automatically failing.

The subject of leadership therefore should be central to any organisation that wishes to succeed as the leader dictates the path or track that the entire company has to follow. There is a need to always ensure that the leader focuses towards achieving the set goals and objectives. Many theories have been formulated in an effort to boost this crucial field of leadership.

The essay provides some of the common theories of leadership with examples being provided using leaders and influential individuals who are credited with the use of these theories.

A literature review of key theories

Numerous studies on the subject of management have been published in various parts of the world with all of them being of relevance to both researchers and managers in organisations. A number of definitions have also been put across concerning leadership and its functions.

Most of the discussions have majored on describing the qualities and characteristics of the particular individual classified as a leader with others describing the position that he or she holds. An example is the definition of a leader made by Yuki (2010, p. 26), who states that a leader is anyone in a position of power. Among the many theories put forward on the subject of leadership is the trait theory.

The trait theory

The theory describes the determinants of effective leadership based on the personalities and behavioural traits of the individuals in positions of leadership. Traditionally, society development has been associated with great men and personalities. Heifetz (1994, p. 12) states that the theory uses the same principle. According to Heifetz, Thomas Carlyle pioneered the trait theory (1994, p. 12).

Those proposing the theory state that individuals with certain traits make better leaders in relation to those without the traits (Heifetz 1994, p. 12). Some of these traits are described as “drive (a broad term, which includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative), leadership motivation (the desire to lead but not to seek power as an end in itself), honesty, integrity, self-confidence (which is associated with emotional stability), cognitive ability, and knowledge of the business” (Kirkpatrick, & Locke 1991, p. 389).

Critics of the theory argue that the traits may not necessarily determine how individuals will perform in leadership since each situation demands a different trait (Heifetz 1994, p. 12).

Functional Theory

Kouzes and Posner (2007, p. 23) state that the functional theory is important in the definition of particular leadership behaviours that contribute positively to organisational success. According to the theory, the ability of leaders to perform is determined by how well they meet the needs of a group especially when they are able to create cohesive and effective groupings (George 2006, p. 38).

This theory has therefore found much use in team leadership though there has been significant application in organisational leadership too (Kouzes, & Posner 2007, p. 23). Most of the studies describing this theory state and describe the main functions of leaders as being “environmental monitoring, motivating others, teaching and coaching subordinates, organising subordinate activities and intervening actively in the group’s work” (Dasborough 2006, p. 75)

Situational theory

This theory has often been described as an alternative to the trait theory. Scientists argued that, contrary to what Carlyle suggested, “History was more than the result of intervention of great men” (Spencer 1884). Spencer describes situational adjustment as necessary in leadership. Leaders do not necessarily rely on their personalities or traits in decision-making but on the situation, which faces them.

The theory therefore suggests that there exists “no single optimal psychographic profile existing for a leader” (Spencer 1884). An evaluation of the behaviour of selected leaders in an organisation, or in an organisation (or organisations) of my choice in relation to a range of models and theories.

Richard Branson

Richard Branson plays leadership roles in various capacities and organisations. Over the past, he has demonstrated special traits in management. It is therefore necessary to consider his role in the leadership of various companies under him.Main roles include inspiring of his subordinates, skilled appointment of managers in his companies, and rewarding those who perform exceedingly well in the organisations. The study therefore explores the activities that Richard Branson performs as a leader by comparing them to the above listed theories of leadership and management.

Motivating leadership

Richard Branson is well known for his entrepreneurship abilities and the encouraging newsletters that he frequently writes. These are mostly meant for the employees of Virgin Atlantic Group of Companies, which he heads. Through the newsletters, he manages to inspire success in his employees by giving them business hints and inspirational stories about him or other successful businesspersons.. According to Conger (2006, p. 34), such an initiative of motivating employees is associated with success in leadership and in business. Yukl and Lepsinger also state, “The ability to understand and to relate to others is widely seen as being important for leaders” (2004, p.25).With such inspirational effort, Richard Branson transforms workers thus turning their efforts into the success of his business.

Indirect management

With over 400 companies under him, Branson has chosen to use indirect management with most of them. The strategy has also contributed to success because the leaders entrusted with the business are able to independently make decisions based on their judgement and not under any pressure from him. His role is reserved to giving advice if needed. Situational theory serves best for this form of leadership.. Some of the problems facing the companies require critical evaluation as applied by Branson. As described above, in situational theory, leaders employ a characteristic or trait based on the situation they face (Spencer 1884). This strategy could be used to describe Branson’s leadership.

Servant leadership

One of the researchers who effectively described servant leadership as compared to transformational leadership is Goleman et al. (2002, p. 91). Their conclusion was, “while the transitional leader aligns his or her interests with those of the followers, the servant leader places the interests of the followers before his” (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 91).

Rollinson contributed to the study by stating that the two behaviours of leadership “emphasise personal development and empowerment of the followers (2005, p. 62). Bill Gates is a servant leader who works with many charities and humanitarian organisation all over the world providing basic needs to thousands of individuals through these charity organisations.

He accomplishes the mission from his personal funds and those from his financial returns as the head of Microsoft. He has also contributed to environmental efforts in different parts of the world. As Gill claims, “the capacity to understand oneself, to have an effective working model of oneself – including one’s own desires, fears, and capacities – and to use such information effectively in regulating one’s own life’ is of great use for a servant leader” (Gill, 2011, p.43).

Social competence

Eloquence, according to Goleman (2002, p. 31), is an important determinant of the functional abilities of a leader, as it determines the success of a transformational leader. Social sensitivity and persuasiveness are some of the traits that are processed by Bill Gates. For social competence to be considered as a characteristic of individual leaders, they should be great listeners.

Bill Gates happens to capture and win the hearts and minds of the people he addresses in his forums and through the books that he has written using his social competence. As stated by Goleman et al. (2002, p.62), “a key role of leaders is to manage the emotions of the groups they lead”. Emotional intelligence as portrayed by Bill Gates amounts to social competence.

Richard Branson and democratic leadership style

Richard Branson portrays this kind of management and leadership by practicing a style of leadership where he is detached from the management of his companies.The top managers of the Virgin Group of Companies are entrusted with the responsibilities of managing the companies without his interference. Democracy is therefore synonymous with this method of management since it allows internal competition between the companies.

According to Pardey, “This strategy works to the benefit of the leader since followers struggle to work to the maximum to achieve recognition and reward” (2007, p. 28). A criticism that has been accorded to this form of leadership is quality of reduced interaction in comparison with other forms of leadership that have been described.

However, “This style encourages accountability and responsibility among the subjects considering that they do not experience constant disturbances from the owner” (Conger 2006, p.243). Since workers get a feeling of independence, they are prone to work for the organisation in such a way as they would do for their own organisations. This strategy has been described as encouraging an element of honesty and accountability.

Bill Gate’s Transformational leadership

Bill Gates is on record for having told his workers and other employees elsewhere to strive towards attaining success in everything they do especially in overcoming the challenges that they may face as recorded in his books and inspirational speeches that he has made in different parts of the world.

He constantly uses his example to encourage and provoke people to be innovative, self-aware, environmental minded, and dedicated towards the needs of humanity. He has therefore gotten a number of followers and influential people to join him in the humanitarian efforts in which he actively participates. This method can conveniently be described as transformational leadership.

Comparison of the Two Leaders

The two leaders have adopted different styles of leadership according to the distinction made above. However, the methods are described to work in favour of each of them in the management of their subordinates and followers. According to Huczynsky and Buchanan, the method used by Branson might be termed as ‘principled’ with that of Gates being ‘participative’ (2007, p.102).

The two modes are effective for both the leaders and their followers. They are described as being successful. Branson gives his employees and followers a room to make independent decisions in management while Bill Gates is more involved in decision-making especially regarding the use of his investments.

These forms of management and leadership are effective for them. However, there are instances described above that the leaders have opted to use a different style of management and leadership that may contravene their principles.

Summary of the learning I can take from this assignment for my own practice and development as a leader

Several outcomes are possible from the above study of leadership theories and individuals. The first lesson that is clear is that, in leadership, leadership styles cannot be used in isolation. Leaders should apply different traits based on the circumstances facing them at a particular time.

Another lesson from the study is that irrespective of the leadership style that is used by the leader, the end and attainment of the laid down objectives are more important. Leaders should choose the most comfortable way of achieving their objectives. Situational leadership theory suggests that a leader should approach different scenarios differently (Spencer 1884).

Huczynsky and Buchanan state, “the style of leadership employed in an academic setting should be more transforming and participatory in relation to the one in a corporation” (2007, p.56). Based on this argument and the findings of the research outlined above, it is a personal observation that the leadership style demonstrated by Richard Branson would be most useful in the management of the banking industry.

Accountability and trust building

Sir Richard Branson has allowed his executive staff and management to make decisions on behalf of him especially in investments where the companies stand to benefit at their own discretion without his consent. Kotter suggested that, by entrusting managers with this kind of obligations, they make sure that they carry out adequate research on the subject before seizing such opportunities to ensure that the right decisions are made (1990, p.56). Accountability is therefore encouraged. Performance is boosted by trust building among managers and their employers.

Responsibility and self-initiative

Richard Branson has created a sense of responsibility and self-initiative among the managers and employees of his group of companies. Decision-making is faster throughout the ranks. Through non-interference with the constituent companies, Branson has created a sense of self-reliance and independence with marked performance.

Conger states, “on the part of followers, this style of leadership gives them the opportunity to mature in the positions they hold as they have the free will to do so” (2006, p.58). The banking industry would benefit from such kind of management since decision-making should be dynamic in this field with little interference.

The decisions that are necessary in the industry are also daily. Having to consult would mean wasting chances and opportunities for organisational growth. However, the leadership qualities processed by the two leaders are adequate and appropriate for any kind of leadership. Leaders should try to adopt them. Leadership theories are also important in describing the types of management principles. However, they fail to capture all the distinct types that various managers utilise to ensure success of their organisations.


Conger, J 2006, The Practice of Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders, Wiley, New York.

Dasborough, M 2006, ‘Cognitive asymmetry in employee emotional reactions to leadership behaviours’, The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 163-178.

George, J 2006, ‘Leader Positive Mood and Group Performance: The Case of Customer Service’, Journal of Applied Social Psychology vol. 25 no. 9, pp. 778 – 794.‏

Gill, R 2011, Theory and Practice of Leadership, Sage, London.

Goleman, D, Boyatzis, R, & McKee, A 2002, The New Leaders, Little Brown, London.

Heifetz, R 1994, Leadership without easy answers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Huczynsky, A & Buchanan, D 2007, Organisational Behaviour: An Introductory Text, Prentice Hall, New York.

Kotter, J 1990, A Force For Change, Free Press, New York.

Kouzes, J & Posner, B 2007, The Leadership Challenge, Jossey Bass, CA.

Pardey, D 2007, Introducing leadership, Butterworth-Heinemann, New Jersey.

Rollinson, D 2005, Organisational Behaviour and Analysis: An Integrated Approach, Pitman, London.

Spencer, H 1884, The Study of Sociology, Appleton, New York.

Yukl, G & Lepsinger, R 2004, Flexible Leadership, Prentice Hill, New Jersey.

Yukl, G 2010, Leadership in Organisations, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

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