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Evolution of leadership perspectives from “great man” to any individual

Historical perspectives of leadership influenced volumes of writings about great and infamous leaders who shaped societies and civilizations, and offered limitless maxims about what makes a great leader.

The concept of leadership has likely engaged the mind of humanity since pre-historic times, with each society developing its own perspectives of leadership (Bass, 2008). Taoism proposed that leaders should act in such a way that followers think success is from their own efforts. The Greeks believed that great leaders are just, wise, shrewd, and courageous. Confucian philosophy emphasized that leaders should set a moral example and use rewards and punishments to mold moral behavior. Ancient Egyptians believed that leadership consists of not only leaders but also of followers and developed structures for enforcing leadership control over the followers. The Old Testament offered prophets, priests, and kings like Abraham, Moses, and David; these leaders represented a jealous God who rewarded and punished followers and non-followers based their actions and beliefs. The New Testament presented moral and persuasive servant leaders like Jesus and Paul, who encouraged followers and non-followers to use their free agency to follow a benevolent God, who would repeatedly forgive them for their behaviors as long as they believed and repented.

Such varying historical perspectives influenced volumes of writings about great and infamous leaders who shaped societies and civilizations, and offered limitless maxims about what makes a great leader. The experience and wisdom of the ages remains influential in popular dialogues and literature, and provides scholars with a rich resource of concepts to test through research. For example, the ideal of democratic leadership practice and recent writings on servant leadership ring familiar with ancient views from around the world. In circa 600 BCE Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that the leader must “place yourself below them. If you want to lead people, you must learn how to follow them” (Mitchell, 1988, p. 66). Later, Jesus would admonish that “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).

The scientific study of leadership started in the 19th century when researchers attempted to isolate the traits that make great leaders. Through the trait perspective, leaders are great men who have innate abilities to control others. By the mid-20th century, the trait perspective had become “outmoded” (Bennis & Nanus, 1985, p. 170) because statistical techniques did not exist to validate its assumptions (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991), and because it failed to account for the situational and behavior factors that influence leadership success (Yukl, 2010; Jex, 2002). Researchers turned their attention to understanding the behaviors that contributed to effective leadership. The behavioral perspective isolates the actions that differentiate effective leaders from ineffective leaders so that research can be used to train leaders to use the best style of leadership. Researchers could not identify a “best” style of research because they tended to find that different styles work better for different situations.

The situational theories that emerged in the mid-20th century reflected how different situations require different leadership styles. Situational leadership perspectives see that the situation defines the leader; leadership emerges when an individual meets the needs of the situation. In the 1970s, Dansereau, Graen, and Haga (1975) offered a leader-member exchange theory, which proposed that leaders use different styles with different members within the same group. James MacGregor Burns’ (1978) transformational leadership theory rekindled trait theory in the 1980s by offering a perspective that sees a transformational leader as an individual with a unique set of attributes for driving major change in organizations and society, and a transactional leader as an individual with a different set of characteristics for organizing tasks and people to accomplish goals. Around the same period, scholars started to see leadership as an interaction between followers and leaders. This perspective produced followership theory, which considers the role followership plays in effective leadership (Kelley, 1996). Contemporary scholars recognize that focusing on leaders, characteristics, followers, behaviors, situations, or other variables as separate factors can provide a limited perspective of a complex phenomenon. Rather, understanding leadership may require exploring the interaction among leader, follower, and situation (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005; Fiedler, 1964).

While historical, classical, and contemporary perspectives tend to focus on a leader who overcomes circumstances versus a leader whom circumstances define, neurological psychology is offering a perspective that sees leadership as neither circumstance nor adaptation, but as a symbiotic relationship among leaders and followers (Reicher, Platow, & Haslam, 2007). Through this relationship perspective, researchers shift their attention away from leadership as a top-down process to see a mutual interaction that influences leaders and followers. Emerging discoveries in systems theory, chaos theory, and quantum physics illuminate how the traditional and contemporary leadership models may be insufficient for portraying leadership in the complex and dynamic social systems of the 21st century (Wheatley, 2006).

Rather than attempting to understand leadership by isolating parts and identifying cause-and-effect, the new sciences offer a holistic perspective that attempts to understand leadership by seeing the associations within networks. Building blocks of leadership fade, and the unseen associations among separate factors become the fundamental ingredient of leadership effectiveness. From this perspective, the concept of leadership becomes fully democratized, with a leader being any individual who influences others to change the world (Wheatley, 2006). This means that understanding leadership is no longer limited to analyzing the contributions of great people or the impact of infamous leaders but is expanding to explore the influence role that followers have on one another and on leaders. 

Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (2005) take this democratization of leadership to the point of platitude, proposing that “every one of us has to be a leader [to] make a difference” (p. 14). Wheatley takes this further by defining a leader as “anyone who want to help… create change in their world” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 196), then promoting training programs to teach individuals how be activists for political causes. The new sciences offer insights about individuals can influence societies by emphasizing the role of forces, waves, possibilities, and other intangible forces on social phenomena. Acknowledging the intangible invites scholars and practitioners to “give up predictability” and “facts”, and to focus on “potentials” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 35). Sounding similar to the understanding of the ancients, the emerging sciences compel leadership scholars and practitioners explore leadership as “an act of faith” (2006, p. 47).

Works Cited

Bass, B. M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory and managerial applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leadership: The strategies for taking charge. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper & Row [from Google Books].

Dansereau, F., Graen, G., & Haga, W. J. (1975). A vertical dyad linkage approach to leadership within formal organizations: A longitudinal investigation of the role making proces. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 13, 46-78.

Fiedler, F. E. (1964). A contingency model of leadership effectiveness. In L. Berkowitz, Advances in Experimental Psychology.

Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2005). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jex, S. M. (2002). Organizational psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kelley, R. E. (1996). In Praise of Followers. In R. L. Taylor, & W. E. Rosenbach, Military Leadership: In Pursuit of Excellence (3rd ed., pp. 136-137). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kirkpatrick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: do traits matter. Academy of Management Executive, 5(2), 48-60.

Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao Te Ching: A new English version. Retrieved November 25, 2010, from Tao Te Ching translations:

Reicher, S. D., Platow, M. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2007, August). The new psychology of leadership. Scientific American Mind, 18(4), 22.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.