Is there a best theory of leadership? Will only one bring success?

iSocial Tech Sparks  - Peter Drucker Created by Silvino Santos - 2012Over the last hundred years or so, there have been many advances in our understanding of the theory of leadership. In many ways I believe when we moved into the industrial age around the 1900’s there was much that seemed to be forgotten from the thousands of years of leadership lessons in the family, on the farm, and in past civilizations that had to be re-learned. I don’t doubt that every one of these theorists had the best of intentions and was looking towards the success of the company, the individuals, and society as whole. However, these benefits were not always the outcome as the focus on the individual took many years to gain the popularity that it commands today.

Frederick Taylor was one of the first pioneers of the new theories of leadership during the early 1900’s. His views were called Scientific Management. He believed there was one best way to perform each and every task. Managers were responsible to develop that standard best practice, select workers with corresponding abilities, and train them on their one task. Managers were to use only these scientific methods and emotions were not to be used to govern a business. Taylor believed that his new standardized methods could be enforced into adoption. His theory has been criticized for rendering work monotonous and skill-reducing, and equally important, removing any focus on social values.

Henri Fayol brought us closer to a focus on the person in his theory known as Fayolism. While he still believed in controlling the workers in order to achieve greater productivity, he also wrote that workers should be treated fairly and that they are motivated by more than just money. Fayol’s focus was on the manager and their actions. His five elements are still promoted today: Planning, Organizing, Command, Coordination, and Control.

Next came Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory focuses on the needs of the individual and gives order in which they are sought and must be fulfilled: Physiological (food, shelter), Safety (personal and financial security), Social (relationships), Esteem (respect from others and self), and Self-actualization (being the best person you can be). Today, many employee satisfaction guides use Maslow’s hierarchy as their basis.

Most recently, Peter Drucker provided the theory called Management by Objectives (MBO). Drucker said his goal was “To create empowered employees who have clarity of the roles and responsibilities expected from them, understand their objectives to be achieved and thus help in the achievement of organizational as well as personal goals.” Most businesses today follow Drucker’s goal setting clarity acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound.

So there we have it. The evolution of leadership theory brought us to a focus on the individual and clarity of expectations all wrapped up in MBO. Is this the best way to lead? Many must not think so. Listed below are ten more theories of leadership in practice today:

Management by Consensus (MBC)
Management by Decision Models (MBDM)
Management by Exception (MBE)
Management by Information Systems (MBIS)
Management by Matrices (MBM)
Management by Organizational Development (MBOD)
Management by Performance (MBP)
Management by Styles (MBS)
Management by Walking Around (MBWA)
Management by Work Simplification (MBWS)

Is any one of these theories of leadership the right one? The answer is yes – at any given point in time, for a particular situation and with certain individuals, one of these is the right choice.

The only constant in leadership should be a focus on the success of the company, the individuals, and society. Leaders can’t afford to get stuck on one solution to an ever changing landscape. Internal and external influences change; generations change, customer needs change. As long as we don’t change the focus of leadership – to benefit the company, the individual, and society – then we will be fine.


One Response to Is there a best theory of leadership? Will only one bring success?
  1. Zachary Slade

    Well said Denis, It’s amazing how it all comes back to this…