Tag Archive for leadership theory

Leadership: Theory and Practice, by Peter Northouse

Leadership - Theory & Practice, Northouse, coverWith most subjects, if you are going to grow in your knowledge, understanding, and application, you should begin with some background knowledge of its history and basic theory.  A study of leadership is no exception, and Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory & Practice is a good place to start.

The first chapter sets the stage with a particular definition and approach to leadership.  Northouse takes a process approach – “ Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (p. 5) – rather than a trait approach.  The implication is that leadership is something that can be observed and learned, as opposed to simply a set of inborn or innate set of traits and characteristics.  He differentiates between leadership as a position and emergent leadership, or leadership that emerges and develops throughout the process, and also differentiates between leadership and power, coercion, and management.

The next ten chapters each highlight a specific and notable theory of leadership from the last century, progressing from the earliest (Trait Theory) to the most recent (Authentic Leadership Theory).  Between these two are chapters on Skills Theory, Style Theory, Situational Theory, Contingency Theory, Path-Goal Theory, Leader-Member Exchange Theory, Transactional and Transformational Leadership Theories, and Servant Leadership Theory.  These chapters provide a brief summary and explanation of the history and main ideas, and therefore give a basic background of these predominant and influential theories of leadership.  They also provide illustrations and examples to assist in showing what they look like in practice.

The last five chapters address leadership issues and applications.  These include chapters on team leadership, personality traits and their relationship to leadership, women and leadership, culture and leadership, and leadership ethics.  These chapters describe leadership issues in relation to current organizational and social factors, explore those issues, and discuss their effect on leader behavior and development.

This book is not a single-topic leadership book, or a specific leadership “new idea” book.  It is a textbook on leadership theories, with a broad overview and perspective on leadership approaches, and their application to leadership in practice.  As such, it is a great resource to have on your bookshelf as a go-to guide to give you a basic knowledge base.  I personally have referenced it numerous times, and it has helped with my internal framework understanding of leadership as I read other leadership books.

Northouse, Pete3 (2012). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.

My Simple Diagram of Leadership

A number of years ago, in my doctoral studies, I took a course called Issues in Leadership Theory. Throughout the course, we, the students, were assigned essays on various theories, ideas, and characteristics of leadership, with which we were expected to interact and then write reflective responses. The goal was to build a broader understanding of leadership and of the effective practice of leadership.

I was taking this course while serving as the administrator of a K-12 school, one that had experienced some great difficulties and needed to be revitalized. I was on the ground floor, in the middle of leadership activity, trying to build and/or rebuild momentum, enrollment, programs, morale, and even (literally) a school building. There were many issues, needs, and deficiencies that I was wrestling with (like, how to start a hot lunch program, how to expand brand recognition in the community with no advertising budget or director of development, and how to attract new excellent teachers with a persuasive vision while retaining the existing excellent teachers who were resistant to change). Although I did not fully realize at the time the extent to which it was happening, I was actually developing my leadership style and principles of practice. And so, over the duration of that leadership course, as I read, interacted, and responded to the assignments, the ideas that resonated with me began to come together in my mind to form my own personal theory of leadership.

As I put those ideas together in a way that seemed to make sense to me, I began to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context, which I visually illustrate below in a diagram called Jeff’s Simple Diagram of Leadership (I like diagrams and illustrations). The basic concept is this: In any situation, there are leaders and followers. Sometimes who they are can change, but both of the individuals/groups are necessary. The leader must have knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers exist (present). He must also have knowledge of the organizational history (past) and organizational vision (future). With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and the organization toward a desired growth, change, or direction.


Now that time has passed since I first formulated these ideas, I believe that this simple diagram is a very accurate picture, and in many ways was even prophetic, of how I have learned to lead. I have come to understand and value the extreme importance of story and culture, both in organizational history and in understanding the people with whom the leader works, and therefore have learned the value of listening and asking questions (past). I have experienced the importance of the role of relationship in the context and environment in which the leaders and followers interact, and in the process have developed my own relational skills (present). I have learned that I have the ability to see “the big picture” of what the organization ought to be and to communicate this in an understandable way (future). Along the way, I have discovered one of my greatest leadership strengths is the ability to make connections between these three – past, present, and future – in way that makes sense to people. And now as I look back, I can see that in each organization in which I have worked, my leadership has followed this pattern and process and has resulted in significant and positive change.

In that particular school in which I was first putting these ideas together, I must admit that I made many mistakes. For example, this is where I learned the importance of taking time to listen to people and understand culture before initiating change (by making the mistake of making changes too quickly without first understanding the environment). However, I grew in both my knowledge and practice of leadership, resulting in a number of significant positive changes, including, among other things: doubling of enrollment; restoration of financial stability; initiation of a large scale building program; establishment of a school board, a hot lunch program, an after school program, and a parent-teacher organization; development and expansion of honors and advanced academic programs; and establishment of a student internship program.

Since that time in my life, I have further developed effective leadership skills and practice that have enabled me to be an agent of change in several other schools and organizations. I have personally identified many of the basic principles that underscore my approach (for example:  learn history and culture; realize that people matter to God, therefore it is important to build relationships and care about people; see the big picture; recognize God’s sovereignty; know that to influence change, you have to change the way people think; communicate; empower; serve; be willing to do things differently). But I have also seen my simple diagram of leadership emerge and remain as the crux of my personal theory of leadership.

Over the last few years, I have now observed a new development: many people have shared with me that they have seen my ability to analyze and assess an organization through the filter of my theory of leadership, to develop strong and effective means of teaching and training those within the organization, and to create and communicate a plan for future growth, change, and development. They have then challenged me to make these skills available for the benefit of others. Therefore, the next step in my leadership is to begin providing this service – as a consulting service – to other schools, ministries, and organizations. My experience, education, and leadership have prepared me to help other organizations identify, understand, and implement changes that will benefit the employees, the constituents, and the organization itself.

If my services could be a benefit to your organization, please contact me at jeff.mcmaster@commonsenseleaders.com.

What is Team Leadership?

Peter Northouse defines a team as “a specific type of group composed of members who are interdependent, who share common goals, and who must coordinate their activities to accomplish these goals.” (2013, p. 287) He goes on to say that good teams fulfill two primary functions, one related to tasks, and the other related to people.  He succinctly says, “Two critical functions of team effectiveness are . . . performance (task accomplishment) and development (maintenance of team),” (p. 299)  In this type of leadership, the role of the leader is team oversight; specifically, to help the team accomplish its goals by monitoring, diagnosing, and acting.  This often involves distributed leadership, which is the distribution of leadership roles and responsibilities to the most appropriate team member at any given time.

Team Leadership Theory is not really about how a team leads, but rather how a leader leads a team.  Hill’s Model for Team Leadership provides a good explanation of this theory.  It begins with the leader’s mental model, which involves three steps in navigating a problem in the function of the team:  identifying the problem, understanding the context, and determining the possibilities.  The model then progresses to the decisions that a leader must make regarding the problem, whether or how to intervene and improve team function.  He must decide whether to simply monitor the situation, or to take action.  He must determine if the issue is internal – in which case he will need to diagnose or repair – or external – in which case he will need to forecast or prevent.  If he must intervene, he must determine if the intervention is for task or relational needs (or for environmental issues), which will in turn effect the actions he must take.

The basic idea is that it is the leader’s responsibility to monitor the team and its activity to ensure that it is functioning well, and if – or when – it is not, to determine what steps to take to address the issue and get the team back on track.  He must be able to see and understand the problem that exists in the team (and whether it is related to task, people, or environment) and determine what is the most appropriate response or corrective action.  Given the value of teams in an organization (which is another discussion), this is an important skill set for leaders.  An understanding of Team Leadership Theory has helped me to become more effective at leading my teams, and I would encourage you to grow in this area as well.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.



What is Leadership Emergence Theory?

J. Robert Clinton’s (1988, 1989) Leadership Emergence Theory is particularly meaningful to me, because it was the theoretical basis in my own research for my doctoral dissertation.  It is a model of leadership development that originated out of research of the formation of leadership in biblical leaders and in significant historical ministry figures, and so is specifically applicable to a Christian view of leadership.  Clinton describes this theory as the concept that “all of life is used by God to develop the capacity of a leader to influence” (1988, p. 9) including internal processes, external processes, and divine processes, both formal and informal.

Leadership Emergence Theory divides the leadership formation and emergence process into six stages, or phases, over the lifetime of the leader. The first, Phase I, is called the Sovereign Foundations phase. It is in this initial stage that God providentially works with the foundational items in the life of the leader-to-be in preparation for future leadership, beginning from birth. Phase II is the Inner Life Growth phase. In this stage, the emerging leader receives both informal and formal training, and there are four predominant means through which the training takes place:  imitation modeling, informal apprenticeships, mentoring, and academic study. Phase III is the Ministry Maturing phase. In this stage, emerging leaders serve in ministry as their prime focus, and get further training, and it is also during this phase that the discovery of giftedness takes place.  The following stage, Phase IV, is the Life Maturing phase, during which the emerging leader is able to identify and begin using his combination of gifts, training, and experience (called “gift-mix”) with effectiveness and impact, and learns to develop its use to its full potential. The pivotal stage is Phase V, the Convergence phase, in which the leader becomes most effective in his role as a leader and in his ministry, as his potential is maximized and exercised.  Unfortunately, only a few leaders ever experience this phase in their lifetime.  Even rarer is the final stage, Phase VI, or Afterglow.  This phase follows the active ministry of a leader by influencing a community based on a lifetime legacy of leadership.

There are three variables which are essential to the explanation and formation of this theory: the process variable, the time variable, and the response variable. The time variable refers to the previously defined phases of leadership development. The time spent in each of those phases can vary, and in some instances can overlap, from person to person. The response variable refers to the way in which the leader responds to people, processes, and events that God brings into the life of the leader. Often, the response directly affects the progression and spacing of the time variable. The process variable, however, is “the core variable around which the theory integrates” (1989, p. 29). This variable is defined as “critical spiritual incidents in the lives of leaders . . . sprinkled densely throughout their lives . . . [that] are often turning points in terms of leadership insights” (p. 29). “Processing is central to the theory. All leaders can point to critical incidents in their lives where God taught them something very important” (p. 25).

In addition to the three variables that affect the lifetime of development, there are also three concepts that are “foundational to understanding the analysis of a person’s life” (1988, p. 42): patterns, process items, and principles. Patterns “deal with the overall framework, or the big picture, of a life” (p. 42), and describe a repetitive cycle in leadership development that may involve “periods of time, combinations of process items, or combinations of identifiable concepts” (pp. 251-252). Process items “deal with the ways and means used by God to move a leader along in the overall pattern . . . those providential events, people, circumstances, special interventions, and inner-life lessons that can be God’s way of indicating leadership potential” (p. 42). Principles “deal with the identification of foundational truths within processes and patterns that have a wider application to leaders” (p. 42). In the emergence of a person’s leadership, these three items provide an understanding of the shaping of that leadership, and provide application to further personal leadership development and to the development of others.


Clinton, J. R. (1988). The Making of a Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress.

Clinton, J. R. (1989). Leadership Emergence Theory. Madison, WI: Printing Plus.


What is Trait Theory?

What is Trait Theory?

Trait theory is the granddaddy of modern leadership theories, and basically is the idea that leadership is derived from certain inherent – or inherited – qualities, characteristics, attributes or traits.  In the “nature versus nurture” discussion, trait theory generally adheres to the side of nature (although it does leave room for the development of traits). In the mid-20th century, Ralph Stogdill challenged this model with his research, and leadership study drifted away from trait theory.  In more recent times, however, it seems to have come back into consideration, in a returning emphasis on “the critical role of traits in effective leadership.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 20) In part, this re-emphasis has occurred because evidence indicates that traits do matter; however, a holistic approach to leadership “involves more than specifying leader traits.  Traits only endow people with the potential for leadership.” (Wren, 1995, p. 141)

Trait Theory

From Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice

  • Definition – Trait theory proposes that leadership is differentiated by a specific set of traits, either innate or cultivated
  • Predominant Traits
    • Intelligence – strong verbal ability, perceptual ability, and reasoning
    • Self-confidence – self-esteem, self-assurance, and confidence in one’s skills and competence
    • Determination – initiative, persistence, dominance, and drive
    • Integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, one who is principled and takes responsibility
    • Sociability – friendly, outgoing, courteous, tactful, diplomatic, and pleasant
    • Personality – characteristics including extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, low neuroticism, and agreeableness
    • Emotional Intelligence – the ability to perceive, express, and use emotions to facilitate thinking, to reason and understand with emotions, and to manage emotions within oneself and in relationships


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: insights on leadership through the ages. New York: Free Press.