Leadership Theories

LeaderLeadership Theories


Every successful leader has found a leadership style that helps them accomplish their goals; their style will change and evolve over time. To help a leader find the right style that accomplishes his or her needs, several theories have been developed. The following theories will be discussed in this paper: Authentic leadership, servant leadership, transactional leadership, and transformational leadership. Figure 1 provides a brief outline of those four theories and the paragraphs to follow explain the detail of each theory.




Leadership Theory Name Year Introduced Author/Theorist Key Components of Theory
Authentic Leadership 2003 George Purpose, Values, Connectedness, Consistency, Compassion
Servant Leadership 1970 Greenleaf Listening, Valuing People, Trust, Integrity, Humility, Collaboration
Transactional Leadership 1947 Webber Accomplish objectives, Complete tasks, Avoid unnecessary risks, Improving organizational efficiencies
Transformational Leadership 1978 Burns Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, Individualized Consideration

Figure 1. Leadership Taxonomy Table depicting the four leadership theories discussed in this paper along with the key components of each theory.


Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is about being yourself; having a unique style that allows you to be true to yourself. It’s about balancing your surroundings with different styles and capabilities (Marshall & Heffes, 2004). Because of its complexity, the precise definition of Authentic leadership has yet to be developed. To bring the definition to life, we can use the three-pronged view of Authentic leadership: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and development. Below is a brief definition of each:

  • Intrapersonal: Focused on leading from conviction; uses life experiences to guide leadership direction. Focuses on originality and is not a copy-cat (Northouse, 2016).
  • Interpersonal: A focus on the back-and-forth between leaders and followers; this is reliant on a relationship between two or more people (Northouse, 2016).
  • Development: The concept that a leadership style develops over the life of the leader; it can be nurtured and enhanced (Northouse, 2016).

One of the most notable Authentic leaders in history is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is most famous for his work within the civil rights movement during the 1960s. King’s role of authenticity is what fueled the civil rights movement; his focus on values and compassion coupled with his passion for the topic is what brought the issues to life and brought change to America (Parrish, 2014).

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership was originally defined by Greenleaf (1977) as “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” (Greenleaf, 1977). Because of the vagueness in the original definition, several attempts have been made to clarify and expand on the definition. Below are a few of the characteristics that have been associated with a servant leadership style (Focht & Ponton, 2015):

  • Listening
  • Valuing People
  • Trust
  • Integrity
  • Humility
  • Collaboration

There have been several well-known servant leaders throughout history; most notably is Tenzin Gyatso (also known as the Dalai Lama). Gyatso is most known for his work in Tibet where he has strived to bring about democracy. His focus has not been inwardly on himself, but on the people of Tibet, working to bring peace, enlightenment, and happiness. His servant leadership style has been built by convincing others to follow a course of action that will ultimately lead to an outcome that will benefit the entire group (Chua, 2016).

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership originated in 1947 (Transactional Leadership Theory, 2016) and focused on the “exchanges that occur between leaders and follows” (McClesky, 2014). These exchanges allow leaders to complete tasks, avoid unnecessary risks, motivate followers through contractual agreements, and focus on improving organizational efficiencies. Bill Gates used a transactional style of leadership; his management style was focused on having back-and-forth dialog with his development team to alter their path (Becraft, 2014).

Transformation Leadership

Transformational leadership theory originated in 1978 and was part of the new leadership movement (Burn, 1978). It is defined as a leader who “raises the followers’ level of consciousness about the importance and value of desired outcomes and the methods of reaching those outcomes” (McClesky, 2014); the ability to “inspire followers to accomplish great things” (Northouse, 2016). Steve Jobs was by the very definition of the word a transformational leader. Jobs had the ability to hone in on the details while considering the holistic view of the organization; he raised his team’s consciousness as it relates to driving the outcome that he was focused on delivering (Isaacson, 2011).


Leadership is complex. Every leader must take on certain attributes of leadership that accomplish the role that they’re in. The challenge is determining what attributes to assume and when. The four theories discussed have been proven to be successful time and time again for many leaders. However, it is not the theory that has made the leader successful; it is the leader that create success. While the leadership theories help to provide a framework for the leader, it is ultimately up to the leader to strike the right balance across the theories for their needs. A good leader will select the necessary attributes from each theory and apply them to their personal leadership style; this allows the leader to have a hybrid of leadership theories that applies specifically to the situation they’re working within.



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Focht, A. & Ponton, M. (2015). Identifying primary characteristics of servant leadership: Delphi study. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 9(1), 44-61. Retrieved from http://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/ijls/new/home.htm

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