Leadership Theories


A Comparison Between Trait Leadership Theory and Transformational Leadership Theory

From a business perspective, leadership is a practice of affecting an individual’s performance or actions concerning the responsibilities or effort of employees in reaching company goals and objectives, and a leader can exercise his or her position to inspire or motivate staff by becoming the driving force that leads the employees to a high measure of communication and teamwork. According to Yukl (2013), leadership is “the capability of a person to persuade, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization.” There are a number of leadership theories within academia, and researchers have identified multiple theories on leadership, and there are a few theories that have received more scholarly writing attention than others have received. Ten of the top leadership theories researched for this discussion are trait theory, transformational theories, behavior theory, environmental theory, functional theory, great man theory, implicit theories, participative theory, situational and contingency theories, and transactional theories. Within this blog entry is a brief analysis and a comparison/contrast of Trait Leadership Theory and Transformational Leadership Theory. Additionally, the discussion includes an evaluation of the effectiveness of both trait theory and transformational theory and examples of how each theory can be used by leaders in an organization. First are the analyses of the two theories, beginning with trait theory.

Trait Leadership Theory
Trait theory indicates that leaders are born into the world with inherent traits that are not prepared or built and that there are certain character and behavioral physiognomies that are apposite for leadership (Taylor, 2009). It suggests the notion that great leadership stems from specific physiognomies or traits. This method centers on honesty and integrity, the yen to lead, self-assurance, perspicacity, broad understanding of the work, and the skill to scientifically direct (Mujani et al., 2012). However, there are limitations in this theory. The theory does not have distinct and/or detailed solutions regarding any specific traits that are compulsory or definitively essential. Researchers categorize six personal characteristics that sharply pertain to leadership: intelligence, adjustment, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, and self-efficacy (Guzman, n.d.). Based on trait theory, individuals possessing these six traits become leaders regardless of the circumstances. Although some theorists and scholars contend there is a certain group of physiognomies that definitively determine leadership, many others disagree with this premise.

Many trait theorists (e.g., Pedersen, Plomin, McClearn, & Friberg, 1988; Tellegren, et al., 1988; McAdams, 1992) have endeavored to insulate comprehensive attributes of great leaders, examining physiognomies such as height or weight of the leader and psychosomatic qualities such as personality and temperament, but ultimately much of the research determined that there was no such comprehensive, all-encompassing set of attributes for great leaders. If specific traits are primary physiognomies of leadership, then how do we rationalize people who hold these qualities but are not leaders (Maloş, 2012)? Questions such as this are part of the challenge in applying trait theories to define or elucidate leadership.

Transformational Leadership Theory
Transformational leadership theories seem to concentrate on the relationships shaped between leaders and followers, and those leaders seek to motivate and encourage followers by assisting team members to recognize the significance and the greater good of the assignments relating back to the mission. In addition to having a strong focus on the performance of team members, the transformational leaders also want each individual to realize his or her potential.
James MacGregor Burns is the original presenter on the concept of transformational leadership, and Burns (1978) asserts that one can observe transformational leadership once “leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.” By way of the power of their vision and character, transformational leaders are capable of motivating team members to adjust prospects, perceptions, and motivations to work towards common goals (Burns, 1978). Bernard M. Bass took from J. M. Burns’ initial concepts to form Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory. Bass (1985) identified the following four elements of transformational leadership:
• Intellectual Stimulation – the leader inspires team members to discover new methods of undertaking tasks and new chances to learn.
• Individualized Consideration – the leader gives direct recognition of each team member distinctive contributions and keeps lines of communication open for team members to feel free sharing ideas.
• Inspirational Motivation – the leader has a strong vision, is skilled at articulating it to team members, and is able to support those individuals encounter the same excitement and inspiration to realize these objectives.
• Idealized Influence – the leader functions as an example for team members, and since those team members rely on and value the leader, they follow the leader and internalize their ideals.
Nadler and Tushman (1990) present complications with transformational leadership such as impractical outlooks about a vision, excessive reliance on the leaders, and the weaknesses of the leaders.

Compare and Contrast
When comparing and contrasting trait leadership theory and transformational leadership theory, one can see that both theories seek to further the understanding of leadership overall and identify what it means to be a leader. They contrast in that they take very different approaches to this end. Trait leadership theory focuses more on how a person becomes a leader, the traits of a leader, and the physiognomies associated with leadership. Trait leadership theory has very no measure for practical application; it is mainly a measure of the characteristics of those in leadership and theory of how those who are successful leaders developed or attained the physiognomies that have led to their success. Transformational leadership theory focuses more on the connection with the leader and the follower. Theorists of the transformational theory believe that leaders influence their followers through leading by example and inspiring employees to operate at a level higher than they would achieve without the leader using the transformational theory as their operating philosophy. Essentially, the baseline difference between the two theories is the goal of theories themselves; where the trait theory seeks to define the origin of a leader, the transformational theory seeks to guide leaders to a more practical and operational philosophy.

Examples of Use in Organizations
Now, a question that one might ask is “how can these two theories be used by leaders in an organization?” An existing leader can use trait leadership theory to identify potential future leaders, by observing the potential candidates looking for previously identified leader traits. Using the philosophy of this theory, those who possess those leader/leadership traits will be great candidates for available leadership roles. For example, a department manager may need a new supervisor and want to promote from within the company. Using the trait theory, the manager would observe his or her staff members seeking leadership traits such as self-confidence, astuteness, honesty, and integrity. Under transformational leadership theory, Mujani et al. (2012) reports that a manager will seek to establish a leader-employee relationship as follows:
1. “The leader knows the wishes of workers and makes efforts to explain to them that their wishes will be realized if they fulfill their work goals.
2. The leader gives a suitable reward or remuneration in exchange for workers’ efforts.
3. The leader responds to workers’ personal interest as long as they are parallel with the work input value (Robbins, 1996).”

As transformational leadership directs leaders who follow this philosophy to be leaders who are skilled at influencing their workers to become loyal followers, an example of this type theory in practice within an organization might be praise and recognition. A manager interested in gaining the support of his or her employees needs to show those employees their support. One method within transformational theory that can accomplish that goal is to give each employee reporting directly to them praise and positive feedback for excellent performance and when appropriate recognize employees in public within the department and with other senior management. This type action will show the employees that the manager recognizes their efforts and hard work, and shows that the manager takes the time to serve as an advocate for them without being asked to do so. If done in a genuine manner, this type action will result in the employees returning that same level of support to the manager when possible.

Effectiveness of Theories
So, how effective are the trait leadership theory and the transformational leadership theory? It is challenging to classify the trait leadership theory as either effective or ineffective because there is no context regarding the theory of action in any particular setting. There is simply the claim that leadership is tied to inherent personality traits. An additional challenge, as stated by Maloş (2012), is that if specific traits are the main characteristics of leadership, then how does one explain individuals who possess those characteristics but are not leaders? Similarly, Shaw (2007) contends that the lack of specific traits does not necessarily declare whether someone is or can be an effective leader. The transformational leadership theory is a theory that one can more easily apply and measure. Transformational leadership theory can be quite effective as long as the leader is effective in communicating and motivating others. At its most basic level, the transformational leadership theory calls for leaders to establish a good relationship with their followers, inspiring them and leading in such a way that individuals follow them by choice rather than because of title or position. Transformational leaders are easily effective in practice being visible and accessible, seeking out new ideas from employees, and both motivating and inspiring employees to perform at a higher level than they would without engaging with the leader. One caution for transformational leaders is to be genuine in their interactions with their followers because all of the leader’s efforts will be futile if the followers feel that the leader is disingenuous and/or untrustworthy; therefore strong communication and interpersonal skills are crucial.

As DeRue and Ashford (2010) stated, “Leadership is a reciprocal relationship… any discussion of leadership must attend to the dynamics of this relationship.” Effective leaders drive their followers toward action and assist him or her in recognizing their potential to achieve greater goals. It is not easy to be a leader who can inspire and shape his or her team members to be dedicated and loyal followers. Being an effective and successful leader demands superior delivery of the necessary skills and behaviors required for different situations or conditions. Thus, a leader needs to learn as much about leadership as possible in order to be a stronger leader because leadership is best enhanced through knowledge and experience. The two theories highlighted in this blog are only two of many theories in research and practice. All leaders should avail themselves of various leadership theories and work to improve their own performance as a leader by employing many of the methods that scholars have studied and proven to be effective. Not all theories will resonate with each individual, but exposure to leadership theories will assist all leaders and future leaders to hone their skills.


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James E. Burroughs, Jr., MBA, Northcentral University, (480) 748-9534.