A leadership theory is an assumption about distinguishing characteristics of a particular kind of leader. Theories focus on determining specific qualities, such as skill levels, that separate a leader from a follower. Great Man, Trait, Contingency, Situational, Behavioral, and Participative leadership theories are among the most common.
The Great Man leadership theory makes the assumption that leadership skills are inherent, not taught. These types of leaders have within them a seemingly heroic ability to lead whenever needed. An example of the Great Man theory might include heroic leadership in stressful military situations.
Trait leadership theories are also based on the belief that some people are born with qualities that make them good leaders. Many people who believe in Trait theories cite particular shared behavioral or personality characteristics of current leaders to support their beliefs. Some critics of this leadership theory argue that there are people who have such characteristics, but aren't leaders.
Contingency leadership theories usually focus on environmental, rather than personal, variables. These theories state that leadership ability is situational. Some people who lead well in one situation might not in another, or one leadership style may be more effective than another. Environmental variables can include characteristics of subordinates and how much everyone agrees on the specific task.
Situational and Contingency leadership theories are often thought to be similar because both involve leaders being chosen based on situations. Situational leadership, though, focuses more on decision-making leadership skills than on how subordinates might affect leadership ability. Certain types of decisions generally require corresponding leadership skills. For example, if a political position needed to be filled, the candidate would be chosen not just because of his or her leadership qualities, but because of a previous role in politics that would afford the best situational decisions.
Like Great Man and Trait theories, Behavioral leadership theory includes the idea that people can be born with leadership qualities. The difference is that Behavioral leadership theory focuses on the actions of leaders rather than on inherent characteristics. This means that people can also learn to become leaders.
Participative theories are usually based upon the thought that great leaders are ones who incorporate the suggestions or ideas of their subordinates. This in turn can help subordinates feel more valued and encourage more leader support. Leaders do, however, usually reserve the right within their leadership role to select which subordinate contributions are most relevant to a situation.