The Major Leadership Theories

10 Major Leadership Theories and Why You Need to Know Them

The Major Leadership Theories
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I know what you are thinking: leadership theory, surely that is dull and largely irrelevant? Believe me, I understand! I have always thought of myself as a practitioner rather than a theorist but, reflecting upon my journey as a leader, and having been taught various theories over the years, I can highly recommend that you read on.

Why is leadership theory important?

You do not have to know every leadership theory in detail in order to be a good leader but, through my experience and coaching other leaders, I have found that understanding a few key models really helps in developing management skills and self-awareness. The most useful theories help us to understand leadership — both our own and others — and how people influence each other. Listed below are some of the major theories that I have found most useful at a personal level.

To illustrate this, and hopefully give some relevance to the theories, I will share how — somewhat unexpectedly — I became a leader and then went on to develop my management skills. Leadership theory can be a very dry subject so hopefully, these stories and examples will give you an accessible introduction to each one.

If you would more detail on any one of the leadership theories listed below just click on the hyperlinks and they will take you to posts with a fuller description, an expanded story and more examples.

My Leadership Journey — Film by author

1. Great Man theory

Great Man theory (Carlyle, 1840) is one of the oldest leadership theories and is the idea that leaders are born with the innate ability to shape history. This is a problem for most aspiring leaders if, me, you were not born a Great Man by any means.

I certainly wanted to be powerful. I wished that I could be great (or at least popular).

Back then I did not aspire to be Alexander the Great or Napoleon, I did not even know who they were when I was that young; at that time my role models for leadership were superheroes.

More specifically, I wanted to be Superman. But, unfortunately, I was not gifted with superpowers from birth. Therefore I had an idea that with some rigorous training and putting myself in peril, that my burgeoning powers would be revealed. So, I undertook flying training.

This involved me jumping from the stairs in my house to a chair in the hall. For every successful jump, I moved the chair further away. This progressed until a crash, a scream and a broken collarbone later, I found myself the only person in Guildford hospital in a superman costume. I recovered but did not learn immediately.

I broke my collarbone a second time before giving up on the superhero training.

So much for the Great Man approach! This theory has mainly been debunked now but the important thing to remember is not to discount yourself from leadership.

We may not be born to greatness but we can all achieve great things in whichever situation we find ourselves. And don’t make the wrong comparisons.

Don’t assume you are powerless just because you don’t seem to have the same influence as a CEO or world leader.

2. Control and domination

Great Man theory was linked to the idea of power and that leaders could naturally dominate others by the strength of their personality and presence (Moore, 1927). This control of others was considered the natural state of affairs for a leader.

This brings us to my next disastrous attempt at leadership when I was a Cub Scout, aged about 10. By virtue of my age, as much as anything else, I was made a ‘Sixer’; a leader of six other poor Cub Scouts. Every week, on the evening the pack met, we had to line up on parade for an inspection.

To achieve this, I used the threat of violence to control and dominate my six. It was a misuse of the little power I was given. Not only is this horrific it is also ridiculous. I was a very skinny boy who could hardly stand up in a stiff breeze.

Any show of power was at best highly tenuous and when I look back it is all very embarrassing.

The important lesson here is that power is frequently abused, no matter what the level of responsibility.

The events of the early twentieth century and the abuses of power by the s of Hitler, Stalin and Mao were enough to make people rethink these early ideas of what makes a leader great.

We need to remember these lessons if we are going to avoid misusing our influence and becoming toxic leaders.

3. Leadership traits and skills

The next step in leadership theory was studying the traits of leaders, to see what common characteristics made a good leader. In the early iterations of the theory, these traits were very much of an unachievable ideal (Galton, 1869). The idea of a leader being male, tall, good looking, charismatic, confident and outgoing held sway for some time.

Therefore, by this measure, things did not get better for me as I went from a scrawny child to a gawky teenager. If I compared myself to the leadership traits from early theories I had little to offer. I was not charismatic, confident, or attractive. I was not the sports star or the leader of any gang at school. It is almost a surprise that my leadership journey did not stop there.

The idea of innate leadership traits evolved into finding more positive characteristics such as integrity, moral courage or wisdom.

It was recognised that these traits could be developed and therefore the next logical step was identifying key leadership skills, ones that could be taught.

The tipping of the balance in the theory, from nature to nurture, was an important one, not least for me! Now the focus was on skills and tools that could be learned by new leaders and managers.

4. Action-centred leadership

When I went to college, for the first time in my life, I was actually taught specifically about how to be a leader. Leadership development was part of our syllabus and I can still remember the lecture where we were taught John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership model (1979). This approach was based upon a straightforward theory you could learn and skills that you could employ.

The simple idea behind Action-Centred Leadership is that of balancing the three core management priorities of the task, team and individual. Most commonly illustrated as a Venn diagram, these three interlocking circles represent the juggling act of a leader. They must continuously seek to achieve the task, build the team and support the development of each individual.

At the time I found, that with this simple tool, I could at least start to identify what I needed to do as a leader and where perhaps I might be failing.

I went from the quietest person in my year to the dizzy heights of college prefect with my newfound knowledge. I finally felt that I was developing as a leader.

This is the product of having an effective tool that you can apply when learning to manage others.

5. Situational leadership theory

The next key step for me was a lesson in situational leadership. Situational leadership (Blanchard, 1985) is a model that demonstrates how you can adapt your management style depending upon the team you are working with and the environment you find yourself in. The leader chooses their approach — to delegate, support, coach or direct — as appropriate.

I have always loved the mountains and during university, I was climbing in the Alps with a few friends.

There was no official leader of the group but the loudest person in the group (not me) inevitably assumed that role. But they did not need to do much as we were all competent.

Once roles were delegated out we did not need coaching or even that much support. That went well until we hit a real challenge.

One day we were climbing a long route and the weather deteriorated quickly. The clouds thickened and, as we reached the summit, we found ourselves in the middle of an electric storm.

The person who had been leading seemed paralysed by this turn of events. I suddenly knew what to do. It was a crisis and the team needed clear direction. Without even really thinking I took command.

I outlined a quick simple plan and led the team, at pace, down the mountain to safety.

Being directive is not my usual or favourite leadership style so this experience gave me new confidence in my ability to flex my approach as a leader. I still find the situational leadership model useful when considering how best to manage a team given their experience and the circumstances.

6. Servant leadership theory

After university, I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The motto of Sandhurst is, famously, ‘Serve to Lead’ and here the emphasis was on putting the mission and the team before self. This idea of ‘the servant as leader’ (or servant leadership) was developed by Robert Greenleaf (1977).

This model of servant leadership — creating an environment where people can flourish and succeed — has influenced all my leadership since. Helping others to succeed is something that motivates me, particularly in my work as a coach.

But what I most about this model is that it turns traditional leadership (particularly the Great Man theory) on its head. Servant leadership empowers us to lead, humbly, from whatever our position or situation. For me, Mother Teresa would be an example of this sort of leadership. She had a global impact through living by this philosophy.

7. Non-directive leadership

The exposure to situational leadership and servant leadership helped me to learn that my favourite leadership style was non-directive. I d to ask questions rather than telling people what to do. I prefer to encourage people to be creative, to work together and to share success rather than being loud and the centre of attention.

This style was well suited to bomb disposal which was my first job as an officer in the Royal Engineers. I learned to love working in small, specialist, highly motivated teams. It also set me up for the coaching and consulting work I would do more of later.

If you feel uncomfortable bossing people around then it is important to understand non-directive leadership and how you can influence people without having to shout at them. If you bossing people around then maybe consider adding some non-directive techniques into your management style. You might be surprised by how effective they are!

8. Transactional leadership theory

I left the Regular Army and started working as a project manager on large construction projects, such as The Shard, the tallest building in London.

Here I was mainly managing consultants and building contractors on the behalf of property developers. As compared to the Army, people in this job would not do what I said just because of my position.

When the chips were down it was all about transactions.

As a project manager, I had to fall back on the leverage of contractual agreements and money to ensure that things got done. This, for me, was a lesson in transactional leadership (Burns, 1978).

This was management using a carrot and stick approach; a functional style that relies on basic human needs such as income and job security. As such it has its uses — as I found — but the approach remains quite limited in its overall effectiveness.

That is why it is often considered the poor twin of transformational leadership.

This managerial style of leadership was not one I was inspired by nor one I wanted to rely on. Having to use it was a valuable lesson but I soon realised that the construction industry was not where my heart was.

9. Transformational leadership theory

So, when I was offered the chance to be a part of a non-profit start-up I jumped at the chance. In my new role, I was responsible for the charity’s operations and this included needing to recruit, train and manage large groups of volunteers.

The largest group of volunteers that I led needed to give up one Sunday in three and work a ten-hour day. To achieve this, I had to learn about transformational leadership (Burns 1978). In other words, my leadership had to be linked to a higher cause or vision that would inspire people.

My position held no real power. There was no military law, contract, or money to use as an influence. Scarily, I had to motivate the team, without these levers, for them to turn up and do the job.

This was the first time I really had to think about vision and how to inspire people to be part of something.

I also learnt a lot about coaching. As the team and work grew, I had to mentor and develop new leaders to take on the extra responsibility. That is another key facet of being a transformational leader — raising up new leaders — and one that I continue through my various responsibilities, not just my work as a leadership coach.

10. Authentic leadership theory

All these experiences led me into the coaching and consulting work I do today. Here I am able to help businesses and leaders as they face their own challenges.

As I reflect on the leader that I am today, I feel I am getting closer to what might be called authentic leadership (George, 2003).

Being an authentic leader is primarily about self-awareness, balance, transparency and a strong sense of morality.

In my case, I am increasingly comfortable leading in a way that reflects my values, my character and the things I am passionate about. I know that I am a leader who loves adventure and challenge and I find empowering and equipping others deeply satisfying. I am also more confident to share my thoughts and experiences; including admitting when I don’t know or when I have messed up.

And that is good as we can all get complacent as leaders. The saying goes that ‘pride comes before a fall’ and that was certainly the case for me. Just when I thought I was getting this leadership thing sorted, I became a parent and realised I still had plenty of failings! So the journey continues.

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7 Major Leadership Theories Every Manager Should Master in 2021 [Updated]

The Major Leadership Theories

Do good leaders make good managers? Or is it the other way around? It's a chicken-and-egg question that has no clear-cut answer. This often leads people to wonder what the difference between a leader and a manager really is. However, one thing is for sure — while leadership and management are not the same, they both must go hand in hand. 

If managers are to be effective in their role, it is essential for them to imbibe certain leadership skills. And if leaders want to lead successfully, they must know how to manage their followers — employees, peers, and stakeholders — so that they feel more inspired, empowered, and engaged, leading to a successful organization.

Ultimately, both roles need an understanding of human behavior to create a more engaged workforce and more productive workplaces.

Before diving into the theories, let's see what leadership theories are all about. Later, we'll talk about some of the most famous leadership theories that will sharpen your leadership skills and help you perform better as a manager, including:

— Situational Leadership Theory

— Transformational Leadership Theory

— Great Man Theory of Leadership

— Trait Theory of Leadership

For decades, numerous studies have been focused on leadership, giving rise to several theories. These theories are various schools of thought put forth by philosophers, researchers, and cognitive experts to explain what goes into the making of a leader. These theories shed light on the traits and behaviors that can help individuals cultivate their leadership abilities.

That said, here are some of the major leadership theories that every manager needs to know to stay on top of their game.

1. Contingency Theory

This theory proposes that no one way or style of leadership may be applicable to all situations. In other words, it recognizes that there might be variables influencing any particular situation, and a leader must choose the right course of action, taking into account those variables.  

In this regard, leadership researchers White and Hodgson state, «Effective leadership is about striking the right balance between needs, context, and behavior.» The best leaders have not only the right traits but also the ability to assess the needs of their followers, analyze the situation at hand, and act accordingly.

2. Situational Leadership Theory

the Contingency Theory, the Situational Theory stresses the importance of situational variables and doesn't consider anyone's leadership style to be better than the others. 

Put forward by US professor, Paul Hersey and leadership guru, Ken Blanchard, the situational theory is a combination of two factors — the leadership style and the maturity levels of the followers. According to this theory, different situations demand different styles of leadership and decision-making. Leaders must act by judging the situation they are facing. 

3. Transformational Leadership Theory

The Transformational Leadership theory, also known as Relationship theories, focuses on the relationship between the leaders and followers. This theory talks about the kind of leader who is inspirational and charismatic, encouraging their followers to transform and become better at a task. 

Transformational leaders typically motivated by their ability to show their followers the significance of the task and the higher good involved in performing it. These leaders are not only focused on the team's performance but also give individual team members the required push to reach his or her potential. These leadership theories will help you to sharp your Skill.

4. Transactional Theories

Transactional Theories, also referred to as Management theories or exchange leadership theories, revolve around the role of supervision, organization, and teamwork.

These leadership theories consider rewards and punishments as the basis for leadership actions.

This is one of the oft-used theories in business, and the proponents of this leadership style use rewards and punishments to motivate employees.

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5. Behavioral Theory

In the Behavioral Theory, the emphasis shifts from the traits or qualities of leaders to their behaviors and actions.

In sharp contrast to the Great Man Theory and the trait approach to leadership, this theory considers effective leadership to be the result of many learned or acquired skills.

It proposes that an individual can learn to become a good leader. This is one of the best leadership theories.

6. Great Man Theory of Leadership

This is one of the earliest leadership theories and is the assumption that leadership is an inborn phenomenon and that leaders are «born» rather than «made.

» According to this theory, a person capable of leading has the personality traits of a leader — charm, confidence, intellect, communication skills, and social aptitude — from birth, which set them apart.

This theory emphasizes leadership as a quality that you either possess or you don't; it isn't something that you can learn. 

While the theory sounds pretty discouraging to those wanting to learn the ropes of leadership, you might take heart in the fact that most modern theorists dismiss it and even by some leaders themselves. It's still an interesting take on leadership and one that highlights the qualities of great leaders, which have more or less remained unchanged over time.    

7. Trait Theory of Leadership

This theory walks in the footsteps of the Great Man theory in assuming that leaders are born with traits that make them more suitable for the role of a leader than others who lack those natural-born traits. As such, the theory pinpoints certain qualities such as intelligence, accountability, sense of responsibility, and creativity, among others, that lets an individual excel at leadership. 

One major flaw in the trait approach to leadership is that it doesn't offer a conclusive list of leadership traits. However, the credibility of the theory lies in the fact that the significance of personality traits in leadership is well supported by research. Trait Theory of Leadership will help you to improve your leadership theories.

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As you can see, leadership theories are different ways of thinking. Some focus on traits and qualities, while some touch upon the importance of situational aspects that influence how leaders behave.

many other behavioral concepts, leadership is highly multi-dimensional, and there are numerous factors that go into filling the shoes of a leader.

Because the human side of the business is one of the most — if not the most — important elements that determine the success and failure of an organization, leadership will always remain the most prized skill in the business world. 

If you want to up your managerial performance and boost your leadership capabilities, Simplilearn's Project Management Certification Training course can get you there.

The certification training course prepares professionals (both aspiring and experienced ones) for the very demanding PMP certification exam.

With eight industry case studies, 20 industry-based scenarios, 6 hands-on projects, and 7 simulation test papers (200 questions each), the PMP training helps all learners equip themselves with all they need not just to clear the exam, but also become an industry-ready practitioner.


8 Major Leadership Theories

The Major Leadership Theories

Different types of leadership styles and personalities were studied more recently than other subjects of management. It was not so far, but in the early part of the twentieth century when interest in leadership increased.

Some theories discuss the leader characteristics, traits etc. while some theories discuss the situations and leadership skills. However, in the past, it was believed that leadership was a born characteristic.

But, the recent theories of leadership explained that leadership can be achieved as well by acquiring leadership skill.

There are many leadership theories from which few are very famous and valuable such as great man theories, trait theories, contingency theories, situational theories, behavioural theories, participative theories, management theories, and relationship theories. These theories are studied and followed all over the world.

8 Major Theories of Leadership

I have explained each type of leadership from the perspective of managing the profit and non-profit organization. These theories are widely studied and used throughout the colleges and universities.

The “Great Man” Theories

While “Great Man” theories were developed, it was believed that leaders are not made but born. That means, the leadership skill is inherent in a person’s characteristics.

Once leadership was taught to be a male characteristic, and so the name “Great Man” taken place. That time leadership was taught to be heroic, disdained, and mythic.

But later there was a strong critic against this theory, those leaders were said to be the product of the society.

The Contingency Theories

The contingency theories consider few external variables related to the environment. That means it does not talk directly about the internal strength or weakness, traits, characteristics of a leader.

Rather, it considers a particular situation and best-suited leadership style. In other words, it advises that no leadership is best suited for all type of situation.

It depends on a few external factors such as follower’s quality, leadership styles, and the condition of the current situation.

 Situational Theories

Situational theories believe that leaders choose the best possible action in a specific situation. Different types of leaders take different types of actions according to their traits, leadership styles, and characteristics. So, for a certain type of leader will be appropriate to make a certain type a decision for a certain type of situation.

 Behavioural Theories

Opposite to the “Great Man” theories, Behavioral Theories believe that leaders are not born, but made.

These theories believe that leadership is not an outcome of inherent characteristics. But it’s an outcome of behaviourism.

Day by day, people learn new things to manage their businesses, become an expert in making effective decisions and gain leadership skills.

 Participative Theories

Different from other theories of business leadership, participative theories suggest that the action of others should be taken into account primarily.

Ideal leadership is where the followers are participating actively in an event. These types of leaders promote participation, encourage people to be a part of the team, and reach a goal by participating.

However, the main decisions, for example, input given, are made by leaders.

 The “Trait” Theories

Trait theories are partially similar to the “Great Man” theories as these theories talk about the inherent traits and characteristics of great leaders.

It assumes that some people inherent specific characteristics which help those making decisions and so. Trait theories identify and certain traits and behaviours of different leaders.

But what about those people who have the same personality traits and are not leaders?

Management Theories (Transactional)

Management theories are related to the business organization. This type of leadership is related to giving reward and punishment as the responsibility is related to group performance and supervision. This theory is being thoroughly used in business organizations.

Relationship Theories (Transformational)

Relationship theories are based upon the relationships created between the leader and the followers. It is also called the transformational type of leadership. The theory states that there is a behavioural process in which people build or develop a strong relationship with each other. This relationship is strong trustworthiness between the leader and the follower.

Related Topics to Read: 

Sheikh Faizul Haque is an internet entrepreneur and the founder of The Strategy Watch; Graduated from North South University with a double major in Accounting & Finance in Bangladesh. With a strong interest in developing and improving Business Strategy and to Conduct Business Analysis, he started The Strategy Watch in 2013 (Previously known as GotAbout Business Idea, Strategy, & Analysis).


Core Leadership Theories: Learning the Foundations of Leadership

The Major Leadership Theories

Why are some leaders successful, while others fail?

The truth is that there is no «magic combination» of characteristics that makes a leader successful, and different characteristics matter in different circumstances. 

This doesn't mean, however, that you can't learn to be an effective leader. You just need to understand the various approaches to leadership, so that you can use the right approach for your own situation.

One way of doing this is to learn about the core leadership theories that provide the backbone of our current understanding of leadership. We explore these in this article and in the video, below.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

Our article on Leadership Styles explores common leadership styles that have emerged from these core theories. These include the «transformational leadership» style, which is often the most effective approach to use in business situations.

The Four Core Theory Groups

Let's look at each of the four core groups of theory, and explore some of the tools and models that apply with each. (Keep in mind that there are many other theories out there.)

1. Trait Theories – What Type of Person Makes a Good Leader?

Trait theories argue that effective leaders share a number of common personality characteristics, or «traits.»

Early trait theories said that leadership is an innate, instinctive quality that you do or don't have. Thankfully, we've moved on from this idea, and we're learning more about what we can do to develop leadership qualities within ourselves and others.

Trait theories help us identify traits and qualities (for example, integrity, empathy, assertiveness, good decision-making skills, and likability) that are helpful when leading others. For more on this idea, see our articles, Authentic Leadership and Ethical Leadership.

However, none of these traits, nor any specific combination of them, will guarantee success as a leader.

Traits are external behaviors that emerge from the things going on within our minds – and it's these internal beliefs and processes that are important for effective leadership.

We explore some of the traits and skills that you need to be a good leader in our articles What a Real Leader Knows, Level 5 Leadership, and What is Leadership?

2. Behavioral Theories – What Does a Good Leader Do?

Behavioral theories focus on how leaders behave. For instance, do leaders dictate what needs to be done and expect cooperation? Or do they involve their teams in decision-making to encourage acceptance and support?

In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin developed a framework a leader's behavior. He argued that there are three types of leaders:

  1. Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. This style of leadership is considered appropriate when decisions need to be made quickly, when there's no need for input, and when team agreement isn't necessary for a successful outcome.
  2. Democratic leaders allow the team to provide input before making a decision, although the degree of input can vary from leader to leader. This style is important when team agreement matters, but it can be difficult to manage when there are lots of different perspectives and ideas.
  3. Laissez-faire leaders don't interfere; they allow people within the team to make many of the decisions. This works well when the team is highly capable, is motivated, and doesn't need close supervision. However, this behavior can arise because the leader is lazy or distracted; and this is where this style of leadership can fail.

Clearly, how leaders behave affects their performance. Researchers have realized, though, that many of these leadership behaviors are appropriate at different times. The best leaders are those who can use many different behavioral styles, and choose the right style for each situation.

Our article «Laissez Faire» versus Micromanagement looks at how you can find the right balance between autocratic and laissez-faire styles of leadership, while our article on the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid helps you decide how to behave as a leader, depending on your concerns for people and for production.

3. Contingency Theories – How Does the Situation Influence Good Leadership?

The realization that there is no one correct type of leader led to theories that the best leadership style depends on the situation. These theories try to predict which style is best in which circumstance.

For instance, when you need to make quick decisions, which style is best? When you need the full support of your team, is there a more effective way to lead? Should a leader be more people-oriented or task-oriented? These are all questions that contingency leadership theories try to address.

Popular contingency-based models include House's Path-Goal Theory and Fiedler's Contingency Model.

You can also use the Leadership Process Model to understand how your situation affects other factors that are important for effective leadership, and how, in turn, these affect your leadership.

4. Power and Influence Theories – What Is the Source of the Leader's Power?

Power and influence theories of leadership take an entirely different approach – these are the different ways that leaders use power and influence to get things done, and they look at the leadership styles that emerge as a result.

Perhaps the best-known of these theories is French and Raven's Five Forms of Power.

This model highlights three types of positional power – legitimate, reward, and coercive – and two sources of personal power – expert and referent (your personal appeal and charm).

The model suggests that using personal power is the better alternative, and that you should work on building expert power (the power that comes with being a real expert in the job) because this is the most legitimate source of personal power.

Another leadership style that uses power and influence is transactional leadership. This approach assumes that people do things for reward and for no other reason. Therefore, it focuses on designing tasks and reward structures.

While this may not be the most appealing leadership strategy in terms of building relationships and developing a highly motivating work environment, it often works, and leaders in most organizations use it on a daily basis to get things done.

Similarly, leading by example is another highly effective way of influencing your team.

Effective Leadership Styles

As we mentioned above, transformational leadership is often the best leadership style to use in business.

Transformational leaders show integrity, and they know how to develop a robust and inspiring vision of the future. They motivate people to achieve this vision, they manage its delivery, and they build ever stronger and more successful teams.

However, you'll often need to adapt your style to fit a specific group or situation, and this is why it's useful to gain a thorough understanding of other styles. Our article on Leadership Styles takes a deeper look at the different styles that you can use.

Over time, several core theories about leadership have emerged. These theories fall into four main categories:

  1. Trait theories.
  2. Behavioral theories.
  3. Contingency theories.
  4. Power and influence theories.

«Transformational leadership,» is the most effective style to use in most business situations. However, you can become a more effective leader by learning about these core leadership theories, and understanding the tools and models associated with each one.


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