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Taxonomy of Leadership Theories

Today, in the 21st century, there is compelling evidence indicating that leadership is one of the most expansively researched social influence processes, both in academia and, of course, in practice (Parris & Peachey, 2013). The importance of diversity in leadership has been well documented in the literature (Ayman & Korabik, 2010), hence the need for leadership scholars and students to develop a deep understanding of and appreciation for the breadth and depth of existing leadership research as well as the relationship among various leadership theories. In this paper, I intend to employ a leadership taxonomy consisting of ethical leadership, servant leadership, spiritual leadership and transformational leadership, to explain in detail each of the mentioned theories using multiple scholarly sources and personal experiences.

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Analysis of Leadership Theories

Ethical Leadership

Emerging empirical literature supports the conceptualization that ethical leadership arises from a social cognitive conception of moral identity or a self-schema organized around a set of moral trait associations such as honesty, compassion for others, integrity, trustworthiness and care, and that ethical leaders are typified both as moral people by virtue of been seen as just and upright decision-makers who care about followers and the wider society and who behave ethically in their personal and professional lives, and as moral managers by virtue of been seen as demonstrating practical attempts aimed at influencing followers’ moral and immoral behavior (Brown & Trevino, 2006; Mayer et al., 2012).

Drawing from personal experience as well as existing leadership literature, I am of the considered opinion that global firms such as Enron and the Lehman Brothers could not have been engulfed in ethical scandals if their leaders demonstrated normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and also if they enhanced conduct to subordinates through two-way communication, reinforcement of ethical behavior, role modeling and decision-making (Abrhiem, 2012; Brown & Trevino, 2006).

The major theoretical underpinning of ethical leadership, in my view, comes from the social learning theory, which presupposes that individuals are able to learn by paying consideration to and imitating the attitudes, values and behaviors of attractive and credible leadership personalties, and that subordinates in work-related contexts look outside themselves to other individuals for ethical direction (Brown & Trevino, 2006). Drawing on the research by Abrhiem (2012), I contend that ethical leadership is not bound by the leader’s choice of leadership style, but rather by the moral development or the level to which the leader is motivated by ethical values when influencing others, and that a moral leader makes an explicit component of their leadership agenda by communicating to subordinates an ethics and values message not only by visibly and intentionally acting as a role model for ethical behavior, but also by employing the transactional-oriented reward system to hold subordinates accountable for ethical conduct.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership has been extensively researched in the literature, with a number of scholars suggesting that it is the best style of leadership in a world undergoing massive transformations (Eagly & Chin, 2010; Sarros and Santora, 2001). Drawing from existing literature, I argue that transformational leadership is deeply embedded in not only raising the consciousness of subordinates by appealing to higher ideals and values such as liberty, justice, peace and equality, but also in showing individualized consideration for the needs and concerns of worker, including encouraging, mentoring and coaching them to develop appropriate workplace behavior (Sarros & Santora, 2001). In their study, Ayman and Korabik (2010) report that transformational leadership has its roots in the behavioral approach centering on interactions between leaders and followers, gender-role orientation is related to transformational leadership behavior, and transformational leadership is found in most cultures though the specific behaviors may vary among the cultures.

Upon analyzing a strand of existing literature on transformational leadership (e.g., Eagly & Chin, 2010; Sarros & Santora, 2001), it is my considered view that it also entails (1) inspired motivation not only by raising the consciousness of subordinates about the organization’s mission and vision, but also by encouraging them to understand and commit to the vision, and (2) intellectual stimulation by encouraging creativity and accepting challenges as part of the job, and by facilitating problem-solving techniques for coming to conclusions that reflect a mutually-fulfilling consensus between leaders and subordinates.

It is these characteristics that lead Eagly and Chin (2010) to conclude that transformational model of good leadership as a matter of fact appears to be infused with a substantial component of cultural feminity, particularly in its incorporation of empowerment, support and mentoring that the leadership provides to its followers. In view of this analysis, I concur that most leaders who revitalize their organizations back into profitability or come up with transformational innovations (e.g., Apple, Intel, Microsoft) employ transformational leadership owing to reinforced behavioral characteristics, such as vision, confidence, courage, empowerment, and willingness to make sacrifice.

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Spiritual Leadership

Fry (2003) cited in Brown and Trevino (2006) acknowledges that spiritual leadership consists of “the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are necessary to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others so that they have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership” (p. 599). Upon analyzing this definition, I contend that spiritual leadership consists of the religious-, ethics-, and values-based approaches to leadership, and is perceived to occur when an individual in a leadership position internalizes spiritual values such as integrity, honesty and humility, hence developing the self as an exemplar of someone who could be trusted, relied upon, and admired by followers.

Drawing from extant literature, I also argue that spiritual leadership is a behavioral-oriented theory, whether in the context of individual reflective practice or in the morally uplifting, empathetic, considerate and respectful treatment of followers (Avolio et al., 2009). Finally, in the context of spiritual leadership, I contend that spiritual leaders demonstrate vision by effectively articulating the firm’s vision and identity, hope and faith by reinforcing a sense of confidence among followers that the vision will be achieved, and altruistic love by implementing and internalizing a caring work environment (Brown & Trevino, 2006)

Comparison between the Discussed Leadership Theories

Drawing on available literature, I argue that that ethical leadership has obvious similarities with transformational leadership in terms of concentrating on trait and behavioral approaches of empowerment with the view to modifying subordinates’ basic attitudes, beliefs, and values through attempting to develop their feelings of self-efficacy and self-determination, and also in the context of demonstrating concern for other, ethical decision-making, integrity and role modeling (Abrhiem, 2012; Brown & Trevino, 2006). However, ethical leadership is considered transactional-oriented by emphasizing ethical standards and moral management, rather than common transformational characteristics of vision, values, and intellectual stimulation. Similarly, I draw from extant literature to demonstrate that ethical leadership shares behavioral and trait similarities with spiritual leadership in terms of demonstrating concern for others, integrity and role modeling; however, ethical leaders emphasize moral management while spiritual leaders emphasize visioning, hope, faith and work as vocation (Brown & Trevino, 2006).


I conclude this paper by suggesting that all the three leadership models are firmly embedded in social and cultural beliefs and values, though they have the potential to take into consideration manifold dimensions of individual identities and contexts, organizational cultures and subcultures, visions for transformational change and ethical principles, as well as the association between leaders and a wide range of followers. Consequently, in my view, it is beneficial for leaders to develop the capacity to switch from one leadership style to another in line with the presenting situation on the ground.


Abrhiem, T.H. (2013) Ethical leadership: Keeping values in business culture. Business & Management Review, 2(7), 11-19. Web.

Avolio, B.J., Walumbwa, F.O., & Weber, T.J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research, and future direction. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 421-449. Web.

Ayman, R., & Korabik, K. (2010). Leadership: Why gender and culture matter. American Psychologist, 65(3), 157-170. Web.

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Brown, M.E., & Trevino, L.K. (2006). Ethical leadership: A review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(2), 595-616. Web.

Eagly, A.H., & Chin, J.L. (2010). Diversity and leadership in a changing world. American Psychologist, 65(3), 216-224. Web.

Mayer, D.M., Aquino, K., Greenbaum, R.L., & Kuezi, M. (2012). Who displays ethical leadership and why does it matter? An examination of antecedents and consequences of ethical leadership. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 151-171. Web.

Parris, D.L., & Peachey, J.W. (2013). A systematic review of servant leadership theory in organizational contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(3), 377-393. Web.

Sarros, J.C., & Santora, J.C. (2001). The transformational-transactional leadership model in practice. Leadership & Organzation Development Journal, 22(8), 383-393. Web.

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