Obersee, Bavaria, Germany, 2015. The photo was taken and edited by Boris Karl Schlein.

Have you seen the last shared posts by one of your LinkedIn contacts showing the difference between a boss and a leader? You sure know these pictures:

  1. There are these infographics of the n (n > 0) most essential differences between a boss and a leader.
  2. Pictures in which, on the one hand, some slaves are pulling a rope to move a stone, and a guy is sitting on it, commanding the slaves. Well, that’s obviously the boss. On the other hand — the leader — a guy helping the slaves to pull on the rope.

… relax, I am not going to post those pictures here. But as I am constantly stumbling over such posts on LinkedIn, I see a lot of people commenting things like ‘Yeah! Fully agree!’ or ‘That’s modern leadership!’. Wait for a second — modern leadership? To me, at least the second example looks more like a servant-leader approach, primus inter pares, which was developed during the 1970s.

As this is my first article about leadership, let’s take a look at some fundamental leadership theories. It’s not intended to be a deep dive into leadership theory. It will, however, serve as the basis for further articles on this subject.

Almost 60 Years Ago

The following short and incomplete list makes clear that theories and thoughts which influence today’s thinking about modern leadership didn’t just appear during the last three years. [1]

  • Douglas McGregor (†) published his book The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960, meaning, McGregor wrote his book in the 1950s. However, McGregor’s ideas are more commonly known under the name Theory X and Theory Y.
  • Robert K. Greenleaf (†) published his first essay named ‘The Servant as Leader’ in 1970. He published his book, Servant Leadership in 1977.
  • James McGregor Burns (†) conceptualized leadership as either transactional or transformational in his book Leadership in 1978.
  • George B. Graen et al. first conceptualized the Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX) during the 1970s. Since then, the theory has been developed further.
  • Bernard M. Bass (†) et al. published the Full Range of Leadership Model in 1991. Its differentiation of Laissez-Faire, Transactional Leadership, and Transformational Leadership combined with the definition of the 4 I’s — Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individualized Consideration — was ground-breaking and continued Burns’ work.
  • Ronald A. Heifetz published his book Leadership Without Easy Answers in 1994. There he presented his ideas about the adaptive work of leadership, also known as Adaptive Leadership.

What we see is that most leadership theories that influence our modern-day thinking are at least 25 years old. Sure, there are also more recent leadership research, theories, and practical approaches available. The book Leadership Agility, for instance, was published in 2006, and the book Co-Active Leadership was published in 2015. Also, leadership research around LMX or Transformational Leadership is still vital.

Gandhi — Leadership Superstar

Another interesting observation shows that these 25-year-old theories continue to remain relevant today. If we compare leadership theories and approaches published today with existing leadership theories, one finds a lot of redundancies. For example, highly mature leaders show altruistic behavior, have a holistic view, and are systems thinkers.

Many leadership books and theories, whether they are old or new, list Mahatma Gandhi as a great leader because he acted following a given theory. That leads us to an interesting point: most leadership theories are — let’s say — at least compatible with each other, while some say they are redundant. “Old wine in new wineskins” is a German saying, meaning that old stuff just got repackaged in a new and shiny way. However, be careful with such sayings, a lot of leadership theories may be similar or compatible with each other. Most of them take a look at specific circumstances from a different angle. Keep in mind that we explain our complex world by building our own mental models, where these models are essentially incapable of explaining the vast complexity of reality. These models do, however, achieve something great: they try to explain a particular circumstance from a specific angle, and the same counts for leadership theories. Consequently, relying on multiple theories allows us to develop and enhance our own leadership style because it also allows us to reflect on ourselves from multiple perspectives. This can, in turn, help us to become more self-aware.

Choose What Works Out for You

We should always be cautious if somebody tells us something about the one new leadership theory and especially if this person suggests that we should discredit previously learned insights! Keep in mind that we are all different. Thus every one of us develops an individual leadership style. As such, I rely on a mixture of the following theories and approaches.

  • McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y
    It provides a fundamental understanding of how a leader’s behavior and the idea of man influence a leader’s and her follower’s response.
  • The Full Range of Leadership Model
    The differentiation between Transactional Leadership and Transformational Leadership provides a fundamental understanding of management and leadership. For me, Transactional Leadership stands for traditional efficiency-oriented management, suited for simple and complicated domains. Transformational Leadership primarily focuses on intrinsic motivation and creative problem-solving. This means that Transformational Leadership is about the implementation of McGregor’s Theory Y. It is leadership suited for complex environments, where a leader acts as an agent for continuous improvement and continuous change. This brings us directly to Adaptive Leadership.
  • Adaptive Leadership
    In complex environments, it is best when people step out of their comfort zone and make a necessary change by themselves. Combined with the ideas of Authentic Transformational Leadership and Servant Leadership, people take responsibility for themselves and focus on performing adaptive work because they are motivated to do so.
  • Leadership Agility
    This theory brings, as well as other factors, personal development and self-awareness into the ring. It is also true that only developed, and self-aware leaders can be Authentic Transformational Leaders.
  • Co-Active Leadership
    This approach sets out five dimensions — Front, Field, Beside, Behind, Field. It is a situational approach that I see as complementary to the 4 I’s of Transformational Leadership.
  • The Art of Leadersheep Framework
    A hands-on framework, describing concrete acts of leadership where a leader and her followers are illustrated as sheep. [2] I find it very complete, intuitive, and highly compatible with Transformational and Adaptive Leadership. The 4 I’s of Transformational Leadership can be seen as the glue between the acts of leadership described by the framework.

As I have already said, these theories and approaches have the capacity to complement each other very well. However, if other leadership theories or combinations of leadership theories work out for you — indeed very well!

A Word on Pseudotransformational and Authentic Transformational Leadership

Some people say that Transformational Leadership is about the manipulation of followers in a negative way. So let me clarify my position on this.

Transformation by itself is problematic as a frame for leadership. First, it encourages self-referential grandiosity–“I have a transformational vision and now I am going to sell it to you.”
Leadership on the Line. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, 2017.

There is a lot of truth in the statement of Heifetz and Linsky because Transformational Leadership indeed contains the risk of turning into an abusive form of leadership. However, I recommend always distinguishing between Pseudotransformational Leadership and Authentic Transformational Leadership. Following Bass’ approach, whenever I talk about Transformational Leadership, I mean Authentic Transformational Leadership as defined by the following quote.

[Transformational leaders] were authentic–true to themselves and true to others.
[…] Personalized, pseudotransformational tyrants demand domination over others at the other’s expense. [They] stress the convergence of values between leaders and followers [and] emphasize compliance (transactional) and identification (transformational).

Transformational Leadership. Bernard M. Bass (†), Ronald E. Riggio, 2005.

Hitler is an extreme example of a Pseudotransformational Leader where — of course — Mahatma Gandhi is a role model for Authentic Transformational Leadership. To understand why people act as either pseudotransformational or authentic transformational leaders, one may take a look at a leader’s psychological profile, motivation theory, and systems theory. From a systems thinking perspective, one should ask what circumstances force a person/leader to behave in a certain way, meaning the leader acts according to the given system. From a motivation theory perspective, we may take a trait approach like Reiss’ motivation theory of 16 basic desires. For instance, a strong drive for the basic desires power and status combined with a weak drive for honor and idealism seems to be an adverse condition for being an authentic transformational leader.

Self-Awareness is the Key

Do you know what the number-one approach to formal leadership development is? Developing self-awareness is the top approach, and it has been for long as there has been a leadership development industry. Why? Leadership is a relationship issue.
The Responsibility Process. Christopher Avery, 2016.

The above quote makes clear why self-awareness and personal development are essential for being a mature and genuinely authentic transformational leader. Tools like the Reiss Motivation Profile or Christopher Avery’s Responsibility Process are great for self-awareness training. And what part does knowledge about leadership theories play in this game? Well, let’s take a look at the following quote from Douglas M. McGregor.

Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations, and hypotheses — that is to say, on theory. […] Another common way of denying the importance of theory to managerial behavior is to insist that management is an art.
The Human Side of Enterprise. Douglas M. McGregor (†), 1960.

You see, it’s not a waste of time to learn about leadership theories: it’s also about becoming more self-aware. And, as there are many mature and useful theories available, it’s not like we have to find the right one first. Instead, we must take responsibility and find a way of bringing the existing knowledge to life in our corporations. We have the chance to make our own work-life more enjoyable and productive if we, especially people in designated leadership positions, learn about leadership. We may also make the world a little better.

So do not let this chance go by. It’s up to you to take responsibility for yourself. To start with, you may take a look at the book recommendations below. I consider these books as essential reading on leadership development. Give it a try, so next time you read something about leadership on LinkedIn or experience a situation in your company, you can apply your knowledge critically and for the better.

Book Recommendations

Leadership: Theory and Practice
Peter G. Northouse

The Human Side of Enterprise
Douglas M. McGregor (†)

Servant Leadership
Robert K. Greenleaf (†)

James McGregor Burns (†)

Transformational Leadership
Bernard M. Bass (†), Ronald E. Riggio

Leadership Without Easy Answers
Ronald A. Heifetz

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change
Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky

Co-Active Leadership: Five Ways to Lead
Karen & Henry Kimsey-House

Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change
William B. Joiner, Stephen A. Josephs

The Responsibility Process: Unlocking Your Natural Ability to Live and Lead with Power
Christopher Avery

Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities
Steven Reiss

The Normal Personality: A New Way o Thinking about People
Steven Reiss


[1] Based on the book Leadership: Theory and Practice by Peter G. Northouse. I strongly recommend reading the book to get a more complete overview of leadership theories.
[2] Learn more about The Art of Leadershipsheep Framework by it-agile GmbH.


My thanks go to Lee Harrison and Claus-Henning Brech, who reviewed this article for me. Thank you very much!
I also thank Ronald E. Riggio, Marty Linsky, Ronald A. Heifetz, and Christopher Avery for their feedback and the permission to quote from their books.

Are you risk-averse?