What is Implicit Leadership Theory?

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses what implicit leadership theories are and how people develop them. There is a short discussion regarding the three general styles of leadership, a defining of implicit leadership theories, and an exploration of how implicit theories can be used and enhanced through education.

Developing an Understanding of Leadership

When Dana was a child, she liked to observe her mom and dad. She was naturally curious and she noticed that their reactions to her were very different. For example, when she came home with a bad grade on her report card, her mother fumed and blamed while her dad encouraged her to study harder and get better grades next time. But her dad didn't just encourage; he helped her with homework and gave her rewards for work that was well done. From these examples, Dana learned two very different leadership styles. Her mom was more likely to accuse and punish, while her dad would encourage and help. Dana realized that both had their place, but she was more likely to respond to the respect and encouragement her dad demonstrated as she progressed through her education and occupation. She had formed an implicit (an implied belief that is not expressed) idea of the best type of leadership from her own experience.


The concept of leadership is different to every person, because everyone has different ideas about how they should be led and how they should lead. In general, there are three leadership styles which can be further broken down into more specific types. The three general categories are:

  • Authoritarian or autocratic: This style of leadership supposes a strong leader type who accepts the responsibility for all decisions and asks for little support from outside sources.
  • Democratic or participative: This is a team approach during which a leader allows others' input into decision-making sessions. It has proven to be the most effective form of leadership.
  • Laissez-faire or hands-off: The actual leader of a group allows team members to make all decisions. This is the most ineffective means of leadership.

As she was growing up, Dana observed the more authoritarian style of her mom and the democratic approach of her dad and made decisions based on the two that would influence the remainder of her life. Her understanding of leadership came from what she observed from her parents and other people she saw in leadership positions.

What is an Implicit Leadership Theory?

Every person develops implicit theories concocted from a mixture of experience and education. While these theories may be anecdotal (based on personal beliefs rather than research), they are just as real as fact to the person who holds them. The theories are formed during the early developmental stages and are difficult to change.

Developing these theories is based on what the individual saw as a successful method of managing people. Dana looked at the difference between her mom's and dad's styles and how they affected her. Other people may not have the same type of dichotomy within the home, but they may use school or other social experience as they make decisions about leadership.

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