Exploring Behavior Leadership Theory and Approaches to Leadership

A woman anticipating becoming a strong leader in her organization
A woman anticipating becoming a strong leader in her organization

Technological and societal shifts have always presented challenges for leaders, but in the 21st century, the world is changing faster than ever. According to a survey by Korn Ferry, a management consulting firm, only 1 in 3 human resources professionals think their companies have adequate leadership for future success.

Effective leadership enables individuals, teams and organizations to thrive through change. However, perspectives vary widely on what makes an effective leader. This blog post explains behavior leadership theory, one approach to developing effective leadership.

Keep reading to learn about the relationship between behavior and leadership effectiveness, plus the pros and cons of various leadership styles. You will also explore how formal education can provide aspiring leaders with the advanced preparation needed for a successful leadership career.


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What Is Behavior Leadership Theory?

Leadership theories attempt to provide an explanation and framework for how people become leaders and what makes leaders effective. One of the four prevailing leadership theories is behavior leadership theory.

Behavior leadership theory focuses on how leaders conduct themselves with tasks and people. It suggests successful leaders learn and adopt specific behaviors rather than have certain innate traits. These behaviors influence people’s actions and performance.

Behavior leadership theory categorizes behaviors as task-oriented and people-oriented:

  • Task-oriented behaviors help accomplish tasks. They aim to improve the commitment and participation of team members, clarify roles and allocate resources.
  • People-oriented behaviors facilitate interaction among team members. People-oriented leaders try to satisfy team members’ needs and create a respectful, positive working environment.

Both types of behaviors are effective in the right scenarios and contribute to a well-rounded leadership style.


What Are the Pros and Cons of Behavior Leadership Theory?

Like all leadership theories, behavior leadership theory has its strengths and weaknesses. It allows leaders to become more effective by learning and adapting behaviors for various situations. However, knowing which behaviors to apply and when can be challenging.



On the one hand, behavior leadership theory is one of the more flexible approaches to leadership. It asserts that leadership effectiveness depends on behavior, so leaders can adapt their behaviors to lead more effectively.

For example, an organizational leader may find that the behaviors effective in managing a small business are less so in a large international organization. A leader who manages a fully remote workforce may need to behave differently than one who manages in person.

The downside of this flexibility is that it can be challenging to know which leadership styles to follow. There are no written rules, and few scenarios have an ideal leadership style.



Another advantage of behavior leadership theory is that it assumes anyone can learn and replicate the behaviors of effective leaders. Hypothetically, anyone can become a successful leader if successful leaders are developed and not born.

In practice, becoming an effective leader may be more complex. Someone could learn the “right” behaviors for effective leadership in a given scenario but not enact them effectively. Or they may not choose the proper behaviors for the circumstances.

Effective leadership takes awareness of leadership styles and an understanding of when to apply them.


What Leadership Styles Are Associated with Behavior Leadership Theory?

Behavior leadership theory broadly groups behavior patterns into four leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic, laissez-faire and bureaucratic. Each style offers unique benefits and challenges, impacting job satisfaction, productivity and overall team dynamics.


1. Authoritarian

Leaders using authoritarian leadership styles exert high levels of control. Generally, authoritarian leaders give orders, make decisions with little or no input from others and expect total compliance.

Authoritarian leadership styles include authoritarian, autocratic, directive and paternalistic. In each style, the leader has authority and power but different priorities for interacting with others:

  • Authoritarian leaders aim to control.
  • Directive leaders provide guidance.
  • Autocratic leaders focus on task completion.
  • Paternalistic leaders show genuine interest in others’ well-being.

Research has associated authoritarian leadership styles with negative outcomes. Two examples are poor work climate and team performance.


2. Democratic

Leaders with a democratic approach actively involve others. They allow everyone to participate in tasks and decision-making.

Democratic leaders can exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Seeking out and considering others’ input.
  • Engaging in two-way communication.
  • Fostering collaboration and teamwork.

Transformational leadership is a democratic leadership style. Transformational leaders are change agents. They encourage others to embrace and create change to achieve success.

Visionary leadership is another democratic approach to leadership. Visionary leaders inspire others to achieve a long-term vision through goal-setting, risk-taking and collaboration.

The benefit of democratic leadership styles is that they can improve job satisfaction, productivity and motivation. But they can also be inefficient because ensuring broad participation takes time.


3. Laissez-faire

“Laissez-faire” is a French phrase that means “allow to do.” Laissez-faire leaders are hands-off, allowing and encouraging others to work autonomously. This style is the opposite of authoritarian leadership.

The behaviors associated with laissez-faire leaders can include:

  • Using few established rules and policies.
  • Providing guidance only when requested.
  • Monitoring performance from a distance.

A laissez-faire approach to leadership can build trust, leading to high job satisfaction. But it can also limit productivity if people don’t have adequate time management or self-motivation skills.


4. Bureaucratic

Bureaucratic leaders are hierarchical and focused on following through on duty. Their behaviors can include:

  • Strictly following established rules and policies and expecting others to do the same.
  • Ensuring clear boundaries between people's responsibilities.
  • Communicating impersonally.

In bureaucratic leadership, decision-making follows clearly defined procedures. As a result, it can stifle progress, flexibility and creativity.

On the other hand, bureaucratic leadership can be effective in settings where consistency is vital, like healthcare and manufacturing.


What Are the Behaviors of Effective Leaders?

The leadership styles in behavior leadership theory have distinct behavior patterns, which can be more or less effective depending on the circumstances.

Certain behaviors transcend leadership styles, enhancing leadership effectiveness. Research shows a consensus that ethical reasoning, clear communication and innovative thinking improve leadership success.


Ethical Reasoning

In a recent survey of leaders at global organizations, over two-thirds of respondents chose “high ethical and moral standards” as one of the most critical leadership competencies.

Effective leaders practice ethical reasoning. They demonstrate and foster honest, civic-minded, and justice-oriented reasoning and behavior.

Doing so builds trust and ensures that decision-making limits harm.


Effective Communication

Strong communication improves leadership success by clarifying expectations and building consensus. It also improves engagement.

For example, when employees perceive that organizational leaders communicate effectively, they’re 73% less likely to experience burnout.

Leaders who communicate effectively practice and promote logical reasoning. They also convey ideas accurately and appropriately in all circumstances, including in cross-cultural contexts.


Innovative Thinking

Increasingly competitive markets call for leaders with an innovative mindset. In a recent survey, senior executives said innovation will be a top growth driver in the next three to five years.

Leaders who practice creative thinking can effectively drive an organization to embrace, foster and promote innovation among individuals and teams. Shifting paradigms takes thinking creatively and applying new perspectives and methods.

Dive deeper into 10 characteristics of effective leaders.


How to Develop Your Approach to Leadership Through Education

Leadership styles develop over time. Leaders can evolve through life experiences, training and formal education.

One option for professionals considering education is earning a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership. EdD programs equip professionals with a terminal degree in leadership, teaching the theory, knowledge and skills to lead effectively.

Earning an EdD in Leadership can benefit public, private and nonprofit professionals, including those in business, social services, the arts and education.

For example, Spalding University offers an online EdD in Leadership for current and future leaders who want to affect meaningful change.

A key theme of the program is applying advanced leadership concepts to practice. Students evolve their leadership approach by analyzing traditional and modern theories. They also learn about facilitating innovation, transformation and data-driven decision-making.

Program graduates are prepared to drive change in a global economy. They have exemplary ethical organizational leadership, team-building skills and systems thinking.


Inspire Change with an EdD in Leadership from Spalding University

Are you interested in accelerating your leadership career? If so, Spalding University’s online EdD in Leadership program can help you inspire change in your workplace and community.

The EdD in Leadership program is designed for working professionals, whether senior or mid-management organizational leaders. You can complete the program entirely online in just two years.

The program fosters a diverse, multidisciplinary community where you will build knowledge, skills and evidence-based practice applicable to your organizational goals.

You will also develop as a worldly, compassionate leader. The curriculum keeps sustainability, equity and ethics at the forefront so that you can innovate and create sustainable, transformational change.

Spalding supports you wherever you are in your leadership journey. Connect with an enrollment advisor to get started.


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