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The history of leadership

Posted on: May 16, 2023
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Human history is filled with leaders, from Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and yet the concept of leadership is one that continues to inspire debate and study as people attempt to understand what leadership truly is.

For example, in their article Evolution of leadership theory, authors Sihame Benmira and Moyosolu Agboola note that there are many different approaches to leadership – and that “there is no one definition or particular leadership approach that is considered universal, and efforts continue in trying to identify what makes an effective leader.” 

What we do know is that the use of the term “leadership” is thought to have originated in the 18th or 19th century, while the word “leader” was used as far back as the 1300s. According to a LinkedIn article on leadership, the word is derived from the Old English word “laedere”, which means the one who leads, with the noun being “laedan”, which means to guide or to bring forth.

The concept of leadership, though, was present long before Old English was spoken, and has often been associated with religious, political, and military figures.

Today, leadership is often thought of in terms of business and management, and is used to describe people who influence, inspire, and motivate within organisational settings. Psychologists, philosophers, and other researchers, meanwhile, continue to study leadership and its many theories.

The theories of leadership

The great man theory

The first theory on leadership was known as the great man theory, which pointed to famous historical figures such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and posited that some people were inherently leaders, possessing greatness and even divine or fated destinies.

Trait theory

Trait theory is an extension of the great man theory, but outlines the personality traits that great leaders possess. It was popularised in the 19th century by philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle.

While the trait theory was largely abandoned as new theories were developed – particularly following leadership research conducted by Ralph Stogdill, a psychologist who found that leadership traits varied hugely, and that someone who is a leader in one situation may not necessarily be a leader in other situations – it paved the way for a better understanding of the characteristics and behaviours that the best leaders today demonstrate.

Behavioural theory

Behavioural theory has helped to inform much of the modern understanding of leadership. It suggests people can learn the behaviours they need to be effective leaders, and research in this area has helped to develop an understanding of different leadership styles.

One example of this theory’s influence is the Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid, which assesses behaviours in order to determine a person’s managerial style and competencies.

Contingency theory

Contingency theory argues that effective leadership is contingent on different factors, with different leadership styles suiting different leaders within different contexts. For example, psychologist Fred Fiedler suggested that there two main factors that determine whether a leader will be successful:

  1. the leader’s personality
  2. the situation in which the leader works, and specifically how much power, control, and influence they have over that situation.

There are a number of other leadership theories associated with contingency theories, including situational theory.

Situational theory

Situational theory, or situational leadership theory, is closely connected to contingency theory, and suggests that the environment or situation in which a leader works will dictate the best leadership approach to use in order to be effective. 

This theory of leadership is also known as the Situational Leadership Model, which was created by behavioural scientist Paul Hersey and author Ken Blanchard, and argues that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. Instead, the theory proposes that the situation or environmental factors will determine the most appropriate and effective style for a leader to use, and that a leader’s style should be able to adapt to different situations and contexts. This idea is closely associated with the path-goal style of leadership.

Transformational theories

Transformational leadership theory originated in the late 1970s with historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns, who researched political leaders and determined that the type of leader who focuses on the beliefs, needs, and values of their followers could have a transformational impact on both people and organisations.

Less than a decade later, leadership studies academic Bernard Morris Bass shifted the focus of Burns’ theory by pivoting instead to followership, and how leaders could support their followers to create transformational impact.

Bass and Burns’ transformational leadership theories, and others like them, are particularly popular across the tech sector and other innovative industries.

Transactional theory

Transactional leadership theory sees leader-follower relationships as an exchange and are common in very hierarchical organisations that emphasise processes and performance. It is also sometimes referred to as leader-member exchange theory.

How has leadership evolved over time?

Theorists’ study of leadership, and the evolution of leadership theories, have greatly influenced and advanced our understanding of good leadership in the 21st century.

Modern leadership styles still acknowledge traditional leadership skills – such as confidence and strong decision-making – but they also emphasise leadership qualities and styles such as authentic leadership and servant leadership, with a focus on life-long, continuing leadership development. These styles recognise that a good leader can do the more difficult aspects of their role – making tough decisions, conducting evaluations, and so on – and also demonstrate humility, emotional intelligence, and flexibility.

Build on the origins of leadership to help shape its future

Harness your knowledge of leadership’s history to develop your understanding of leadership and management in a modern business environment by studying the 100% online MBA Finance or MBA Entrepreneurship from the Keele Business School at the University of Keele.

One of the key modules on both of these flexible MBA programmes covers leadership in a complex world, which addresses the needs of executives in today’s dynamic environment and focuses on strategic leadership in the context of complexity and change. You will explore the origins and history of leadership thinking, and gain a fundamental understanding of contemporary leadership theory. 

You will also examine the pivotal role of the senior leader in the process of understanding and shaping organisational culture, and develop key leadership knowledge and skills, such as:

  • identifying different types of leadership problems and the approaches to solving them
  • understanding and making sense of change
  • understanding of the leader’s role in power, politics, ethics, and diversity.
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