The Ultimate Guide to Leadership Theory

It's often difficult to connect leadership theory and real-world application. SMU Cox can help.

A smiling business owner stands in front of group of employees at conference table

This blog post was originally published in April 2020, and was revised in June 2023.

Managers and senior staff are often sent to various leadership courses or are encouraged to fulfill self-guided modules on how to become better leaders. Some businesses and organizations even have internal teams that offer ongoing, annual training in a variety of professional disciplines, including leadership. It’s quite common, however, that students and business professionals struggle to find real-world applications for their knowledge of leadership theory.

While there is an abundance of available information on the concept of leadership, it’s often difficult to make the connection between theory and practice. For example, leaders are instructed to support, train, evaluate, and build up their teams. But what does it truly mean to “support” an employee? Some view the support of an employee as providing proper training so they are able to do their job. Others view it as providing emotional support when the employee is going through a difficult experience. In reality, both are right. Because the secret to leadership theory is that your methods will always evolve depending on the person you are managing.

Taking a look at the definition and principles of leadership-as well as how MBA students can put leadership theories into practice-we’ll examine some of the top leadership theories every business professional should understand.

Defining Leadership

There are many ways to define leadership. John F. Kennedy stated that “ Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other “ and Abraham Lincoln shared, ” I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down. “ These wise words display some of the most important traits in leadership theories. A true leader is one who learns continuously, always inspires others, and maintains integrity.

Continuous Learning

Leaders must have a mind for knowledge and continued learning. Great leaders are creative and open to new ideas. While some are born with a natural ability to lead, leadership is a skill that can be learned. So just as much as leaders expect individual contributors to complete their assignments, leaders must follow-through on their promise to be a good leader by constantly finding ways to improve their leadership style.

True leaders will change course in an instant if their path isn’t leading toward desired outcomes. Leaders know how to recognize strengths in others and are uninhibited in their ability to delegate, either for the purpose of the employee’s professional development or simply because the task is not a strength of theirs. Although all leaders strive for success, the methods differ from leader to leader. Successful leaders must be fluent in diverse leadership styles-this includes being open to utilizing more than one leadership method, depending on the need.

Although all leaders strive for success, the methods differ from leader to leader. Successful leaders must be fluent in diverse leadership styles-this includes being open to utilizing more than one leadership method, depending on the need.

Abundant Inspiration

With exceptional interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, effective leaders can bring communities together toward one collective vision and focus on the dreams and ambitions of students and their community. Leadership encompasses learning and facilitates growth. Great leaders also allow themselves to be inspired by others. Great leaders have a deep understanding that learning is fluid and that their colleagues-regardless of position in the company-are able to be innovative and inspirational as well.

Endless Integrity

Leaders are confident, honest, and maintain the highest level of integrity. A trustworthy leader will follow through with their promises. The most respected leaders understand how their employees think and know what is important to them. The people within a company can trust your leadership ability when they know you truly care about their well-being.

Top Leadership Theories Every Business Leader Should Understand and Learn

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders are solely focused on challenging the status quo. Transformational leadership leads to a strong push for action and strategic motivation. A transformational leader focuses on change management and diligently empowers an organization to face change; head-on, without hesitation. Transformational leaders don’t lead through authoritarian methods but inspire, foster, support, and encourage employees to join the collective group working toward a new and better future.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership theory is flexible. It is not based on a specific skill of the leader, the style of management is modified to suit the requirements of the organization. A situational leader must have adaptability and be able to move from one leadership style to another to meet the changing needs of an organization and its employees.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership focuses on empowering employees from within while supporting and fostering growth. Servant leaders are securely focused on the end result and are willing to sacrifice their own time and effort if it means it will deliver them to the desired end-result. Servant leadership is an excellent leadership quality to practice in organizational settings that need compassion, such as a company in need of a mission and vision overhaul. Servant leaders will guide employees toward a strong community which ultimately enables and drives them to deliver successful results.

Transactional Leadership

In transactional leadership, rewards and punishments are contingent upon the performance of the employees. Transactional leadership theory is based on the idea that managers give employees something they want in exchange for getting something they want.

Invitational Leadership

Invitational leaders specifically focus on ensuring there is participation from everyone involved within an organization. Invitational leadership is driven by the theory that in order for a culture to develop, grow, and succeed, each and every person in the company must be on board. There is less focus on the process, and more emphasis on the attitude and excitement of the people working toward the goal.

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership is focused on vision and action. Being a strategic leader means you are exceptionally organized and are able to work out details while maintaining focus on the higher goal. Strategic leaders allow employees to be creative to solve problems, while constantly encouraging and challenging them to move forward toward success. Strategic leadership is a great leadership theory to practice in organizational settings that require a great deal of change.

How to Put Leadership Theory Into Practice

To be an effective leader -a person who is capable of adapting and putting any leadership theory to practice-you must be willing to put in the work. The first step is learning the skills that are necessary to carry out these actions. Leaders must then practice, revisit, and improve upon these skills daily. It’s also helpful to have a mentor that can guide you through the process and be honest with you when you’re falling short.

Learn the Skills


In order to learn how to effectively communicate with people who each have a unique communication style, leaders must have strong written and verbal communication skills. A great leader must be active listeners that are available and ready to handle any issue that arises within the organization, whether it’s with a peer, manager, or subordinate. This means excellent leaders have both emotional intelligence and mental stamina to keep up with such demands.

Advanced Critical Thinking and Problem-solving

Given that the leaders of an organization are responsible for tending to the most complex problem within a workforce, an effective leader must have the ability to think critically and deeply about the issues that are brought to their attention. In order to lead effectively, business managers and executives must maintain emotional control, be quick on their feet, and jump to offering unique and innovative solutions, while also encouraging others to think outside the box. Excellent leaders act out of genuine curiosity and have strong cognitive flexibility. They are conscientious about their mistakes, openly learn from their failures, and have a strong moral compass.


Effective leaders can motivate large groups of people to understand the common goals of an enterprise and subsequently act on that understanding by working hard to produce successful outcomes. Good leaders are persuasive and make people want to perform well because they set attainable goals, offer incentives, provide gratitude, and are empathetic to individual needs within a company.


The most successful leader intimately understands both their strengths and their weaknesses. Furthermore, once a leader has identified a weakness, they are quick and happy to partner with other individuals who either have the ability to take on those tasks, or-if delegating is not an option-are able to help them be successful. Delegating means letting go and trusting the hard-working staff around you to share the load. However, when delegating, leaders must set precise expectations and assist staff in prioritizing tasks in order to maintain fluidity in organizational operations. This includes identifying and assessing measurable outcomes, and constantly evaluating employee performance, formally or informally.

Work with a Mentor

Finding and securing a mentor can sometimes be challenging, but mentors don’t have to come along by chance. Finding a mentor is something you can actively pursue.

good mentor is a person who has been in your professional shoes and, therefore, can provide you with the necessary wisdom, tools, guidance, feedback, and support. Good leadership mentors have the willingness to offer you their time, are enthusiastic about helping you, and have the skills to provide honest feedback. Mentors are empathetic and respectful. They guide you toward success without shame or discouragement.

To find a mentor, start by reaching out to your personal network. LinkedIn is a great resource because you can often find great mentors through your connections. LinkedIn also has a Career Advice Hub, where you can find like-minded individuals that are interested in helping others.

Become a Mentor Yourself

Once you’ve honed and become comfortable with your leadership abilities, you can strengthen your leadership acumen even further by becoming a mentor yourself. Being a mentor allows you to see things from an outside perspective, and prompts you to reflect on the ways you handle professional situations. Taking the time to mentor provides you with new insight and skills, and is also rewarding as you are assisting another person on their journey to become a better leader.

Learn to Put Your Leadership Skills in Practice by Earning an Online MBA from SMU’s Cox School of Business

The mission of Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to become business leaders in a changing world, and this remains true for Cox’s Online Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) program. This means taking what you’ve learned and applying it to real-world business challenges so you are ready to contribute before you’ve even hit the workforce.

The Online MBA at SMU Cox is designed for working professionals who are driven to achieve their goals at the greatest capacity. Online students that attend our online MBA programs experience the same rigor, energy, and community as students in the on-campus program, and receive the same diploma while benefiting from the flexibility to work full-time and maintain commitments off-campus and around the world. No matter where they are, Online MBA students are an integral part of the SMU Cox network.

The Online MBA program develops soft skills from a leadership perspective in the following courses :

  • Managing and Leading People : Introduces students to the skills needed to become an effective manager and leader in any organization.
  • Executive Leadership : Allows students to explore and improve basic interpersonal skills related to leadership effectiveness.
  • Strategic Management : Examines the fundamental concepts of business strategy as they are applied in domestic and global markets, including topics in industry analysis, vertical integration, strategy execution, and diversification.

SMU Cox’s Online MBA students learn to become well-rounded leaders. From managing cross-functional teams to thinking innovatively, you will hone your leadership skills for the changing world of work.

If you’re interested in expanding your career opportunities, speak with a Cox representative today and learn how you can be an effective and successful leader.