Leadership Theories Matrix

Leadership Theories Matrix

Trait, Behavioral, Contingency, Skills, & Situational Leadership

Trait Leadership

Trait leadership theory refers to the concept that there are patterns of personal characteristics or traits that an individual maintains which allows the person to be an effective leader in groups and organizations (Northouse, 2013). Early trait theories concentrated on inherited traits such as temperament and intelligence. The theory has grown in complexity due to the inclusion of skills along with traits. The theory has also been expanded using the Big Five Personality Model which is able to measure particular traits more effectively than merely observing behavior. This theory is problematic for a number of reasons but chiefly it is criticized because there is no common set of traits that can be identified in all situations. Another major criticism of this theory is that it does not measure leadership in terms of effectiveness but rather assumes that because someone is a leader that their traits have given them this ability, e.g. a leader may not deserve or have earned leadership and therefore his or her traits are meaningless. 

Example: An example of a trait leader could be seen in a person such as Steve Jobs because he had specific characteristics such as understanding of technology (intelligence), self-confidence, and many other traits that made him a leader. However, in contrast to this position, it is also arguable that Steve Jobs was not a good example of trait theory because he also possessed many negative traits such as being domineering and obsessive which are not considered traits of a good leader. 

Behavioral Leadership 

Behavioral leadership theory posits that effective leaders behave in specific ways in specific situations and in relation to subordinates (Northouse, 2013). The concept of behavioral leadership is rooted in the belief that a leader is effective by behaving in specific ways in situations. This means that a leader understands when to admonish, give praise, be empathetic, etc. This theory rejects the notion that leaders are formed through inherent traits or skills and views leadership in terms of sets of behaviors that can be taught and adopted to create effective leaders. This theory has merit because specific behaviors such as providing praise can reinforce subordinate behaviors and lead to effective leadership in terms of accomplishing goals. However, this theory is also problematic because there is a large area of impracticality attached to it. Understanding how to behave in any given situation is nearly impossible. There is also an unrealistic quality to the theory because it assumes that a person merely behaving in a specific manner that will foster loyalty and productive behavior in subordinates. Giving praise, for instance, does not automatically create loyalty since people have perceptions concerning the genuine nature of the praise. 

An example of behavioral leadership can be seen when leaders are expected to do specific things in certain circumstances such as if there is a national emergency, the President is expected to address the nation. Failure to do this would result in the President losing support as a leader. There are many examples of situations where leaders are characterized by their behaviors such as providing praise for jobs well-done as well as providing criticism for poor performance. 

Contingency Leadership 

The contingency theory of leadership posits that leadership is determined by circumstances or situations (Northouse, 2013). This theory views leadership in terms of styles of leaders and when they should be applied. The underlying concept is that certain situations require certain types of leaders such as bureaucratic business models requiring autocratic leaders. This theory has merit because different styles of leadership work better in certain situations. However, this theory is also problematic because it assumes that leadership styles can be altered based on circumstances. This belief lends itself to making leadership relativistic and disingenuous. If leadership simply can change based on circumstance then it means then in some situations the leader can appear insincere. 

Example: A fast food business will likely need an authoritative leader as there is less need for collaboration in this business model. However, this assumes that leaders are able to switch styles of management based on the needs of situations meaning that the same manager could adapt to managing a sales environment where a more flexible style is needed. This is not the case in reality as many managers have set styles of leadership. 

Skills Leadership 

Much like trait theory, skills leadership assumes that there are specific skills that make leaders effective (Northouse, 2013). Specific skills such as having good communication ability and being a strong public speaker are examples of skills that might be needed to be a quality leader. Much like trait theory, the problem with this theory is that determining which skills are the most effective is nearly impossible. There is also the fact that there is no specific skill set that can be viewed as being a complete leadership set. There is huger variance in the skills of leaders. This theory also assumes that having skills makes a good leader but in reality, there are many people who have the same skills as leaders and they are not leaders, 

Example: A leader such as Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, may have good public speaking and good human relations skills that propel him into leadership positions. However, a leader such as President Trump who appears to have poor human relations skills has also ascended to a position of leadership which reflects how the skill leadership theory is too broad and lacks definitive criteria.

Situational Leadership 

This theory is closely related to contingency theology but the difference being that situational leadership is dependent on the circumstance and the performance readiness of the subordinate (Northouse, 2013). This is a highly controversial theory because it assumes that there is no best way to lead in any situation and that leaders must enter the situation with positive high expectations and that this determines the best approach to leadership. This theory has no real support from studies as it has continuously been found to have little impact on the development of successful leaders (Fernandez & Vecchio, 1997).

Example: This theory is often practiced such as in situations where leaders are trained to be positive and create expectations for employees. Leadership training often takes the form of situational leadership because it has an appeal due to positive thinking. However, there are no working models of this theory which can be called a success (Fernandez & Vecchio, 1997). 


Fernandez, C. F., & Vecchio, R. P. (1997). “Situational leadership theory revisited: A test of an across-jobs perspective”. The Leadership Quarterly. 8 (1): 67–84.

Northouse, P.G (2013). Leadership Theory & Practice (6th Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 


Triola Vincent. Tue, Jan 05, 2021. Leadership Theories Matrix Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/leadership-theories-matrix

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