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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Leadership Theories (Academic)

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

Mango observes that “The leadership field is overcrowded with theories.” Mango goes on to state that there are over 66 leadership theories, but many of them are nearly identical and simply restate the same principles differently. Mango “wonders why too many leadership theories are needed to say the same thing.” In a reductive effort, Mango distills all leadership theories into five primary leadership domains: character, characteristics, people practices, institutional practices, and outcomes. Mango then examines transformational leadership, among 21 other leadership theories, through the lens of these domains.

Mango identifies having high moral standards as the predominant character trait associated with transformational leadership and notes high productivity and exceeding expectations as its associated outcomes. Mango’s identified people practices align with Bednall et al. and others who define transformational leadership as “a multidimensional construct that encompasses four behavioural sub-dimensions: idealized influence; inspirational motivation; intellectual stimulation; and individualized consideration.” Thus, transformational leadership is a behavioral theory, not one based on the leader’s traits. However, Alatawi argues that these sub-dimensions are not clearly delineated and there is overlap between them. Consequently, Alatawi suggests that scholars refrain from using them in any additive capacity and instead work on refining these concepts so future researchers can empirically evaluate them for effectiveness.

Despite Alatawi’s criticism of additive analysis of the sub-dimensions, Bednall et al. suggest there is evidence that transformational leadership as a whole is effective under certain conditions. Farahnak et al. state that transformational leadership has “positive effects on… …organizational outcomes,… …improved staff attitudes,… …as well as decreased negative outcomes.”

Bednall et al. identified a curvilinear relationship between transformational leadership and knowledge sharing and another curvilinear relationship between knowledge sharing and innovative behaviors. Both parabolic curves have higher results at either end—low leadership and high leadership—and lower results at the average level of leadership. Interestingly, this curvilinear relationship seems to indicate that in the case of transformational leadership, no leadership or weak leadership yields better outcomes that mediocre leadership while strong transformational leadership had the best results. One possible explanation for this implication is that leadership, transformational or otherwise, is ultimately an action, not a position. The “average” leader cannot produce the results of the strong leader and prevents—by virtue of his or her position—those leaders from within the subordinate group from rising up to achieve the results possible when no leader is present. This phenomenon is reminiscent of God’s judgment to the church of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:15-16 (NKJV), “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.”

God wants leaders that are cold or hot, Bednall et al. found that strong transformational leaders produced the best outcomes, and Mango identifies high moral standards as a defining character attribute of the transformational leader. These desires and findings point to developing a strong moral character as a best practice of transformational leadership.

Another best practice of transformational leaders is to maximize effectiveness of each of the sub-dimensions. While Alatawi argues against any additive effect, the sub-dimensions independently remain the basis for the transformational leadership model and strengthening them individually will improve organizational outcomes.


Alatawi, M. A. (2017). The myth of the additive effect of the transformational leadership model. Contemporary Management Research, 13(1), 19-29.

Bednall, T. C., Rafferty, A., Shipton, H., Sanders, K., & Jackson, C. (2018). Innovative behaviour: How much transformational leadership do you need? British Journal of Management, 29(4), 796-816.

Farahnak, L. R., Ehrhart, M. G., Torres, E. M., & Aarons, G. A. (2020). The influence of transformational leadership and leader attitudes on subordinate attitudes and implementation success. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 27(1), 98–111.

Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).

Mango, E. (2018). Rethinking leadership theories. Open Journal of Leadership, 7, 57-88.


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