Leadership Theories - What Do They Mean?

There are many leadership theories available. Here are two that are particularly useful in developing a greater awareness of what makes a leader in the workplace.

1. John Adair's Leadership Models

John Adair's leadership theory

John Adair believed that to be an effective leader, you need to be aware of leadership in three areas: the task, the individual and the team, as shown in the circle here.

Each circle overlaps and influences the other. A good leader recognises that a healthy interaction between the team, the task and the individual is vital. So for example, if a team is working on a project, then the leader thinks about three aspects - task, team and individual.

1. Task

A good leader will examine what are the goals of the project,  what resources are needed, what are the timelines to be adhered to and so on.

2. Team

He/she will consider the following questions: How will the tasks be divided amongst the team?  how often will they meet? how will they interact with stakeholders? how will they measure success? etc.

3. Individual

A good leader will observe and work with each team member as an individual. Are they working to their strengths? Are they learning from the experience? Are they being listened to on the team? etc.


Taking this further, John Adair recognised three levels of leadership: team, operational and strategic. Each level has different responsibilities in terms of leadership.

John Adair's levels of leadership

1. Team Leadership

A Team Leader is responsible for creating a specific outcome, given set resources and a timescale. This is normally a front line position. He/she predominantly works to short-term deadlines and targets and is concerned with quality, yields, employee motivation etc.

2. Operational Leadership

An Operational Leader is normally a middle management position. He/she focuses on how the business as a whole is operated. There is an awareness of the importance of fostering a healthy business culture and climate.

Operational Leaders create and interpret policies and procedures, set standards and decide on rewards.

3. Strategic Leadership

A Strategic Leader is normally a top level management position.  At this level, business strategy is formulated and the importance of communicating a clear vision is recognised. The Strategic Leader prepares for future change, whether it is growth, consolidation or a reduction in business activities.

They plan to get new business, obtain the necessary resources and work out contingencies. They make sure that business goals are translated into meaningful objectives for employees in the business. For more information, go to John Adair's home page.


2. Tannenbaum and Schmidt

Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership model

Another well known leadership model from the range of leadership theories available was developed by Tannenbaum and Schmidt. This explains how managers have a choice regarding the amount of authority they exert over a given situation. A good leader knows when to make fast decisions, when to consult others and when to delegate responsibility for a task.

When deciding which approach to adopt, good leaders consider the importance and complexity of the task and the ability of the individual or team to complete it without assistance. When the task is completed successfully, the individual or team take the credit.

When something goes wrong, the leader takes full responsibility. Even when a task is delegated to others, the leader is responsible for monitoring progress and providing back up support, encouragement and advice.

As a manager, think about these leadership theories and what level of leadership is appropriate for you. Be aware of the subtle differences as you are promoted within a business and be prepared to change your approach where necessary depending on the task and the people involved.


Here are some leadership quotes to think about:

The mediocre leader tells. The good leader explains. The superior leader demonstrates. The great leader inspires.
Buchholz and Roth

Effective leaders don't react to problems, they respond to problems and learn.
Danny Cox


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