Which “Approach” to Leadership is Best?

Written by AJ Powell

People often talk about and discuss the five approaches to leadership (trait, style, situational, transformational, or discursive) as a matter of which one they argue is best. However, what they are really convinced about in such discussions (and sometimes, arguments) is their own opinion based on the approach that fits their personal style of practiced leadership best. It’s no secret that leadership in practice involves a variety of different approaches acting at the same time, but many individuals often ascribe to a single approach as fitting their definition of “leadership” as it applies to how they approach leadership from their own perspective. In truth, this more than likely happens because those individuals are either confused about the finer details of leadership theoretical and practical applications, or they simply have little to no idea how each different perspective relates to the others. Regardless of which might be the case, here we are going to now provide a basic understanding of the relationships each approach shares with the others to highlight how they all work together, and we’re going to begin this discussion by using a very well-defined definition of leadership as our base.

To date, the most well-thought-out, defined, and highly accepted definition of leadership is given by the U.S. Army as, “The ability to provide purpose, direction, and motivation, while operating to accomplish the mission, and improve the organization” (Army, 2006). While the Army’s definition of leadership effectively encompasses a very large array of what leadership is, this statement highlights a very important key aspect that must be taken into consideration for this discussion… Not one of the five approaches to leadership listed above can effectively describe what leadership is on its own when each are independently applied to this definition. Leadership, we can state then, is the encompassment, and practical and theoretical combination, of all of these approaches – and more – combined. Therefore, as we identify each approach, and briefly highlight their shared relationships, we will be better able to see how each combine and interact to reach our definition.

The trait approach to leadership[1] defines the characteristics individuals maintain and use to attempt to enact leadership, but what must be understood is that everyone’s personality is unique. We find no one personality as perfect for all situations, and yet each personality can find home within specific situations. This is exactly the reason why the age-old belief in natural-born leaders is false. There is no such thing as a natural-born leader as all leadership is build upon self-motivated personal development. As people grow and develop a personality, they combine those traits with their experiences to determine the best possible way to approach a problem or situation. This leads to using different style approaches[2], which are appropriate for use entirely through situational dependence. Autocratic, Democratic, and even Laissez-faire style approaches find importance in use depending upon specific situations, and there is a time and place for leaders to be demanding, to understand when to compromise, or even to allow others the freedom to do their job as they see fit – provided it gets done.

To highlight how the previous two approaches are both equally important to leadership, we can look directly at how their use fits neatly within the concept of situational approaches.[3] Remember that the only thing we can truly count on maintaining any real control over in life is ourselves, and that because people don’t actually have any real control over the vast majority of the world around them, it is important to learn to accept that, adapt, and overcome. Things will always be as good or as bad as you make them, and an individual’s ability to adapt to different situations is an important aspect of leadership as a whole.

Now, since we understand that we really only have control over ourselves, and most often little to no control over the world around us, our adaptations to our different situations often forces us into shared problems and issues with others. These things may be beyond our individual capabilities to tackle, but not our collective capabilities, and the real trick is convincing others of that idea too. With a transformational approach to leadership,[4] leaders set the example, identify needs, and place others before themselves. Transformational leadership has a direct relationship with the previous approaches, but also discursive approaches[5] as well. Making a real effort to identify motivating factors of others allows you to discern what others value, and then work to align those values with your own example, the mission at hand, and the needs of the organization. Additionally, highlighting individual successes and shared successes, or even using examples of failures to create motivation from, has a direct impact on a leader’s ability to motivate and influence others.

When we develop an understanding of the interconnected relationships shared between each of these approaches to leadership, we find that each of these approaches fit neatly within the Army definition together as a whole. It is also important to note that here we are able to create a clear differentiation between leadership and management as well. Without people to manage, managers are no longer managers, however, leadership can be practiced regardless of whether others are present or not. Leadership development is the never-ending effort towards improvement of the self, and it requires the internalized self-motivated efforts to seek both personal and professional development in order to grow. Within that, we can effectively say that anyone who sets a good example is practicing leadership, and that even without followers, setting an example for others to follow will gain followers by consequence. A leader leads by example, and that example must be adaptive, understanding, purposeful, motivating, and even influential if it is ever going to be effective.

Sound Off!

There are a large variety of ways that each approach to leadership works together with the other approaches, and a large number of ways in which two or more work at the exact same time… What ways can you think of that they work together? Can you describe the relationship(s) shared between them in the way you think of? In what ways can you think of two or more in effect at the exact same time? How do you think you could use that understanding to better yourself and/or your professional career?

Take a few moments to think about these questions, then write your answers in the comments below so the community can discuss, engage, learn, and grow!


Army, Department of the (2006). Field Manual 6-22: Army Leadership, Competent, Confident and Agile. United States Army Publishing Directorate.

Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2012). Fundamentals of Organizational Communication: Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills, Values. Eighth Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Pearson.

[1] Ref. Trait Approach – Theory of leadership that assumed that leaders possessed innate traits that made them effective; commonly referred to as the great-man theory. Shockley-Zalabak, 2012, p. 215.

[2] Ref. Style Approach – Theories that attempt to identify a range of general approaches leaders use to achieve goals. The approaches are thought to be based on a leader’s assumptions about what motivates people to accomplish goals. Shockley-Zalabak, 2012, p. 216.

[3] Ref. Situational Approaches – Leadership theories that explore how leaders interact with followers and requirements of a particular environment. Shockley-Zalabak, 2012, p. 219.

[4] Ref. Transformational Approaches – Leadership theories that explore how leaders motivate followers by personal example, through appeals to higher-level needs, and by the establishment of vision. Shockley-Zalabak, 2012, p. 222.

[5] Ref. Discursive Approaches – Leadership theories that examine leadership process through discourses which influence the accomplishment or lack of accomplishment of tasks and goals. Shockley-Zalabak, 2012, p. 224.

About the author

AJ Powell

AJ is a retired U.S. Army NCO who served in both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army. He is a combat veteran, and has participated in contingency operations around the world. AJ is the Owner of Veteran Leadership Solutions, the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Warfighter Journal, and is a published Sociological Analyst, Researcher, Guest Lecturer, and Public Speaker. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a focus on Sociology and a science degree in Organizational Leadership, and is published in the field of sociology. AJ is an inductive analyst; public figure; researcher/writer; aviator; a certified advanced operational diver; professional instructor, trainer, mentor, and adviser; snowboarder; motorcycle rider; world traveler; he enjoys long distance endurance events, and much more.