5 Famous Leadership Theories & Skills for the Workplace

Traditional Leadership Theories = Practical Skills

Natural leaders can be hard to come by. Most of us have to learn the skills needed to be effective at leading groups of people, especially if those people have conflicting viewpoints. In the workplace, these leaders are worth their weight in gold — but what qualities do they have? Which leadership theories best encourage these qualities among management and employees alike?

We’ve all seen them out there and many of us are a little jealous of the ease in which they work a crowd. They may have big personalities or they might not enjoy the spotlight. One thing is certain: when they talk, people listen.

They are leaders.

Three business people with their arms folded smiling at the camera
Although some people are born natural leaders, you can learn effective leadership skills

Ideally, we are hiring and training these people to lead our small businesses. Good leaders are essential to making a business function at its highest potential. A poor leader leaves employees floundering and frustrated and brings down the productivity and morale of the workplace.

5 Famous Leadership Theories

1. Great Man

The Great Man theory can best be summed up by the famous tenet: “Great leaders are made, not born.” In other words, leadership is an inherent trait and cannot be taught via textbooks or career development training. One of the older theories of leadership, it posits that the cream of a group will rise to the top, especially for leadership positions.

2. Transformational

This theory focuses on giving employees the agency to explore their own creations and innovations to create results. Transformational leaders drive, rally, and excite team members. They focus more on clearly and regularly communicating with and among their team and peers. This, in turn, fosters independence among the workforce.

3. Transactional

Transactional leaders operate with a goal similar to transformational leaders but with more direction among employees. Typically, transactional leaders value structure over creativity. They believe that the results they look for come from their direction rather than encouragement.

4. Servant

Servant leadership is a newer concept and focuses on talent development. It may look a lot like transformational leadership, but that theory still focuses on getting results for the organization. Servant leadership focuses on getting results for the employee. Servant leaders work to uplift their employees via training, mentoring, and any other support the talent requires.

Servant Leader showing business plan to colleagues during a meeting
A servant leader will focus on their fellow employees and lift them up

5. Situational

Leaders who juggle many different personalities among their employees may use situational leadership theory. This theory does what it says on the label: leaders apply the theory to the employee who needs it or the circumstance that calls for it. This theory can be difficult for leaders who struggle with adaptability. It also takes a good degree of emotional intelligence to use the correct theories for the correct situations.

Skills and Traits of Great Leaders


You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase ‘treat others the way you’d want to be treated.’ The lessons contained in that phrase are a key part of good leadership — but it goes even deeper than that. The best leaders are empathetic towards employees, meaning they strive to understand and are invested in their employees’ issues.

Emotional intelligence always ranks highly for good leaders and managers. This is because employees value being treated like a real person, worth more than what they produce for the company. Data even shows that employees who feel as though they are valued and cared for are more likely to produce quality work at a higher rate.

Leaders show empathy in several ways such as listening to employees and offering advice to problems where appropriate. They can also be flexible with employees that work hard but are struggling to maintain a strict schedule. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of this. Many employees are still willing to do great work, but they need greater flexibility to balance the challenges life is throwing at them.


Great leaders are also able to roll with the punches and keep bringing their ‘A’ game in challenging and rapidly changing environments. The fact of the matter is that in small businesses, big surprises and changes can happen at a moment’s notice. A real leader is one who can not only handle the shake-ups themselves but can help employees get through frustrating and confusing times.

Logistics professionals are one example of this adaptability skill in action. Different problems and concerns come at you on a whim and need quick critical thinking skills and working under pressure to respond promptly. Every issue is different and requires a different fix. Throughout the day, these professionals may have to adapt responses to completely different circumstances.

Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of a real-world challenge for leaders. This time in adaptability. Many employers and managers have been forced to adapt their jobs to working with employees remotely. It has been and will continue to be challenging, but one that brings out the best in good leadership.


Finally, communication skills will always remain atop the list of good leader credentials. Communication is the cornerstone of effectively completing tasks. Nothing is more annoying than goals and objectives that continually change without explanation.

Three business people looking at a digital tablet together and smiling
Good leaders have open communication with their team

When those who leave their jobs for new ones are surveyed, nearly two-thirds of them will tell you that at least part of the reason for the move had to do with a bad boss. Good bosses and leaders are honest, straightforward, and actively try to avoid micromanaging their employees. Likewise, good leaders try to lay all the facts out for their employees. They’re also open to new ideas and strategies for completing tasks.

COVID-19 is also putting a leader’s ability to communicate to the test. For instance, if employees are back in the workplace, leaders must detail the risks, expectations, and contingency plans associated with COVID-19 at work. There should be clear plans in place in the event of an outbreak, and good leaders will be available and willing to answer any and all questions.

Final Thoughts

Strong leaders are not always easy to come by, but they make a profound difference in the workplace. Skills such as empathy, adaptability, and communication are highly valuable in small business leaders and tend to become clear in difficult times. COVID-19 provides a real-world example of how all these skills currently come together in the workforce.

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