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Leadership Theories: Great Man ,Trait ,Contingency, Transformational & Servant Theories

Updated on August 31, 2016

Great Man Theory -“Pre-1900; continues to be popular in biographies”

The Great Man theory occurs when a momentous development of an exceptional person befalls that individual, and he or she has a significant impact on society. It is said that the person who falls into this category of leadership does so during an era that is influenced by the need of social change (Kouzes & Perry).

An example of a person that exemplifies the great man theory is President Barack Obama. In 2008, the then Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign slogan was, “Change We Can Believe In.”There are many different reasons to categorize Barrack Obama in the public-sector leadership theory of “Great Man.”

During his campaign the need for social change could be seen in many different segments of America. Here are just a few examples:

  1. High unemployment

  2. Sub-prime mortgage crunch

  3. Two wars

  4. Inability to catch Bin Laden

  5. Americans frightened by terror attacks within the United States and homegrown terror cells already in America

President Barack Obama can be categorized in the public-sector leadership theory of “Great Man,” due to his effort to level the playing field between socioeconomic classes in the United States. Citizens from different economic and social backgrounds found themselves without healthcare prior to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, also known as, Obamacare. While this may have seemed like a long battle, on June 25, 2015, The Supreme Court of the United States heard its’ second case, in which opponents of the Affordable Care Act alleged that the law was contrary to the constitution. However, in a 6-3 decision the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare (Liptak, 2015). Here is how the Justice voted: 6) Roberts, Kagan, Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kennedy- 3) Thomas, Alito and Scalia. This means the tax subsidy for the Affordable Care Act will come from the federal government making everyone eligible.

Another example of why President Obama fits into “the public-sector leadership theory of Great Man category," is because he has been influenced by the need of social change within the LGBT community. It is doubtful that in 2004, Senator Obama could have imagine himself as the man who would, one day come to be known as the President who championed LGBT rights. Ironically, in 2004, Senator Obama stated, “What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman,” (Solomon, 2014). President Obama understands the need for social change and recognizes equal rights’ issues.

On June 26, 2015,the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 to make same-sex marriage federal law, which means all fifty states, must recognize gay marriage. Here is the breakdown: 5) Kagan, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Breyer and Sotomayor – 4) Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas (Liptak, 2015). President Obama has had a significant impact on society during his presidency and therefore is the epitome of the “Great Man Theory.”

Trait Theory - 1900-1948; current resurgence of recognition of importance of natural talents”

According to the trait theory, there are a number of characteristics that describe this type of leader. Leaders who possess individual traits such as aptitude, drive and the ability to effectively influence through communication fall under the trait theory of leadership; however, other natural abilities such as scientific and industrial capabilities are just as important (Kouzes & Perry, 2010).


Steve Jobs is an example of a groundbreaker who exemplifies the trait theory capabilities of a leader. It comes as no surprise that Mr. Jobs developed his technological talents to become an entrepreneur. According to his biography, Steve Jobs often as a child disassembled electronic devices in his garage because of his interest in digital chips. He later went on and worked for Atari for a brief time. After traveling to India, to find spiritual awareness, Steve Jobs came back to the United States. In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computers. The two of them went on to transform computers. The rest is history. This history includes, “… such revolutionary products as the MacBook Air, iPod and iPhone, all of which have dictated the evolution of modern technology” (Steve Jobs bio., 2011).

Contingency Theory - “1948-1980s; continues as the basis of most rigorous models but with vastly expanded situation repertoire”

According to the contingency theory, an importance is based on circumstantial responsiveness and changes that the leader must face while engaging his or her followers. Individuals that fit into the contingency theory of leadership are highly motivational people and often times will assemble groups to test drive how these people may react to each other when given a specific task to complete as a team (Kouzes & Perry, 2010).

Drill sergeants are incredibly motivational individuals, and they serve as a good example of contingency theory leaders. Drill sergeants deal with a tremendous amount of variables. Arguably, their most important task is motivating regular citizens to accept and master the challenges that come with being a soldier. It is the drill sergeants’ task to tear down the citizen and rebuild him or her as a soldier. While most think that basic training is a physical test, few realize the psychological tests that drill sergeants provide to their troops, which ultimately can be the difference between life and death on the battle field. Drill Sergeants shift traits and have the ability to motivate even the idlest people. This is why drill sergeants fit into the contingency theory of leadership.


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Transformational Theory – “1978- Present”

According to leadership theories, the transformational theory accentuates leaders who are able to make profound modifications in culture and processes surrounding different aspects of principles. Devices used by transformational leaders include the leader’s charisma, ideas and overall intuition (Kouzes & Perry, 2010).

Is there a leader who fits the definition of the transformational theory more than the sixteenth President of the United States? Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery and led a nation through a civil war. These are deep establishment changes that profoundly changed a nation. Importantly, he not only led the United States through the Civil War, he mended the north and south. Due to his leadership the United States of America remained one nation, instead of becoming two.

Servant Theory - “1977- Present”

According to the servant theory of leadership, leaders put an emphasis on the moral obligation to those that they lead. This ethical code may include leaders in the private sector and public sector who stress the importance of legal obedience. Also, the servant theory was influenced by the cultural phenomenon of sensitivity that was born during the 1960s and 1970s (Kouzes & Perry, 2010).

While most individual are unable to name the Supreme Court Justices from 1966, they probably know what Miranda rights are. These nine justices are a good example of the servant theory. Moreover, these justices ensured that individuals would not be stripped of their Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights (This day in History, 2012).

1966 United States Supreme Court Justices
1966 United States Supreme Court Justices | Source


Kouzes, J., & Perry, J.L. (2010). The Jossey Bass Reader on Nonprofit andPublic Leadership.

Liptak, A. (2015).Supreme Court Allows Nationwide Health Care Subsidies & Same-Sex Marriage Is a Right, Supreme Court Rules, 5-4.

© 2015 Suzanl


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