The Evolution of Leadership

Businessman on summit

“So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,

And guided them with his skillful hands.”

–Psalm 78:72

Leaders have surfaced in stories and historical records since the invention of writing. No matter what period, mankind has had leaders, from the bible to the oval office, from Alexander the Great to Mahatma Gandhi. However, the way we have thought of leadership has greatly changed over the past century. In business and academia, it has been a subject of much theorization. and that is exactly what this article is all about. This article is not intended to be comprehensive, but accessible. It is therefore grossly oversimplified, which means it as a brief and useful primer to the research literature.

There has been a lot written on the difference between management and leadership, but I like to think of the distinction as management being the process of getting the most from limited resources to reach organizational goals, whereas leadership is about influencing people towards reaching organizational goals. Whetten and Cameron (2011) described managers those who “do things right” (i.e. perpetuate the status quo) whereas leaders “do the right things” (i.e. help the organization adapt).

There are many ways to divide theories of leadership. For example, we could say “best practices” (i.e. suggesting there’s one “best way” to lead) include theories on traits, leadership style, transformational leadership, etc. In contrast, other theories are “best fit,” which just means that it depends on the situation. However, in order to understand how leadership evolved over time, theories have been provided in a crude timeline. I have also identified the key theories and theorists by putting them in bold.

The “Trait” Era (mid-1800’s to 1940’s)

At this time, the population of the US was only around 17 million. Karl Marx was publishing seminal work in Britain, which had just beaten China in the Opium War. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) had created his “Great Man” Theory, asserting that leadership cannot be taught. Rather, there are born leaders (and therefore, born followers). As you can imagine, leaders were considered to be men, not women. Considering this was still a time of slavery, gender equality was not in most people’s minds. It is likely that this theory planted the seeds for the fascist ideas of people like Adolf Hitler, who wrote about “Ubermensch” (“supermen”) in his eugenic writings. Regardless, the Great Man Theory is not used at all today.

Then came the period of the Great Depression (1929-1939), during which the Nazi party in Germany rose to power. This led to the Trait Theory, which was very similar to the Great Man Theory, but with more emphasis on well-defined traits. Traits associated with leaders include motivation and ambition, self-confidence, integrity, energy, flexibility, intelligence, etc. One of the criticisms of this theory is that many people who possess such qualities aren’t actually leaders. The main problem, however, is again that leaders are thought only to be born and not made.

Behavioural Theories – The “Style” Era (1940’s – 1960’s)

This period started with World War II (1939-1945), and the subsequent creation of the United Nations. Behavioural theories of leadership came from this period, refuting the notion that leaders are born and not made. They suggest that leadership can in fact be learnt.

In the 1950’s, University of Michigan researchers published research on interviews they conducted on particularly adept and inept workers, and found two trends in leaders’ behaviours. Leaders were either a) concerned with their subordinates’ well-being, or b) concerned more with getting the work done. The former leaders had more productive workers than the latter. Meanwhile, the Ohio State University surveyed military and industrial personnel to see what subordinates thought of their superiors, yielding similar results. “Considerate” leaders were obviously more concerned with their subordinates’ well-being, while leaders who were more concerned with “initiating structure” emphasized getting the work done. However, it is not clear from the Ohio State research that the former were any more productive than the latter.

Management:Leadership GridThis led to the development of Blake & Mouton’s Managerial Grid (1964), which can be used to plot these leadership types. They use the scales of concern for people vs. concern for production. Keep in mind that consideration may vary based on culture. In the UK, leaders may be thought of as considerate if they help their subordinates with some tools, as opposed to the Japanese leader who may help their subordinates with personal problems. Therefore, the concept works across cultures, but the specific behaviours may vary greatly.

Around the same time as the behavioural theories began to take off, Kurt Levin and Rensis Likert had been writing about participative leadership. This entailed the involvement of workers in the decision-making process. Essentially, the researchers said there is a spectrum between autocratic decision-making and total delegation to subordinates. The argument was that people will be more collaborative and committed when they are involved in the decision-making process, and better decisions can be made when you put more heads together.

The “Contingency” Era (1960’s – 1980’s)

Some sources like to distinguish situational theories and contingency theories, but I have not yet seen a convincing or coherent enough explanation of how they differ. Furthermore, many sources use these terms interchangeably or put them together, for example, saying “situational contingency leadership.” Don’t get caught up on the titles.

Hersey & Blanchard model of situational leadership

Paul Hersey & Kenneth Blanchard developed a model of situational leadership, which is quite clear when you look at the corresponding diagram. Employee “readiness” (i.e. willingness + ability) determined which style of leadership to take, among directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating (other sources use different words for these). For example, if workers are willing but unable to perform, a leader may need to coach them; but if they are able but unwilling, a leader may need to support them instead.

Another popular model is Robert House’s “Path-Goal” Theory (1971) of leadership. He argued that leaders direct followers so they know where to go, eliminate obstacles (as the leader sees fit, depending on the situation), and reward the followers for their performance. What determines the leader’s effectiveness in this model is their leadership style, and the characters of the situation and the followers.House's Path-Goal Theory

Fred Fiedler’s Leadership Contingency Model (1967) looks confusing at first, but a lot of it is just fancy terminology for otherwise simple concepts. Fiedler used the term “least-preferred co-worker” (LPC) to determine if leaders are more concerned with people or tasks. LPC is basically derived from ratings of how much of a pain in the ass someone is to work with. The best approach depends on a combination of good leader-member relations, task structure (i.e. standardization of tasks), and position power (i.e. the leader’s authority to appraise and reward performance).

Fiedler's Leadership Contingency Model

Critiques found various pros and cons with this theory (e.g. questionable validity of LPC), but Fiedler went on to develop his theories. He created the Cognitive Resource Perspective (CRP), which stated that there are four factors that should influence how a leader leads his followers: 1) the group members’ competency, 2) stress, 3) experience, and 4) group support of the leader. In addition, with other researchers, he developed “leader-situation matching” training to help leaders match their LPC score with the situation. Although this theory is convoluted and somewhat questionable, there are over a dozen studies that provide evidence for increased group effectiveness following such training.

Transactional & Transformational Theories – The “New Leadership” Era (1980’s – 1990’s and beyond)

Tightening market conditions in the late 1970’s led to big changes in structures and markets, and the Cold War was seeing its end in 1991. Around this time, George Graen helped the development and popularization of the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory, which emphasizes the sense of mutual trust, respect, and commitment leaders have with their followers. By using these factors to assess the relationship, followers tend to be categorized as part of the leader’s “in-group” or “out-group,” which may have negative effects for those in the out-group; but that’s office politice. Regardless, research has supported this theory by demonstrating that high-quality LMX yields higher job satisfaction, productivity, retention, rates of promotion, and even salaries. This type of leadership uses contingent rewards (i.e. performance-based pay) and leaders influence followers by appealing to their extrinsic motivations, hence why this is called transactional leadership (the relationship is like a transaction – you work, and I’ll pay you for it).

Transformational Leadership wheel

Transformational leadership greatly contrasts, because such leaders try to influence followers by appealing more to intrinsic motivations (e.g., with intellectually stimulating or enjoyable work). For example, they try to inspire their workers and be considerate to them. It sounds so simple, but it was only in 1978 that James Burns introduced the concept. He said that transformational leadership is an ongoing process in which leaders and followers mutually improve one another. Leaders, therefore, influence with the use of their charisma. In 1985, Bernard Bass argued that leaders transform followers by appealing to their higher-order needs, increasing followers’ sense of task performance, and emphasizing team/organizational goals over personal ones.

In this era the concept of charisma (a term which came around a century ago from German sociologist Max Weber) gained popularity and importance. House (the path-goal theorist mentioned above) has done extensive research with his associates on charismatic leadership. Such leaders can profoundly influence their followers, as evidenced by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, as well as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Many researchers (including Bass, from the previous paragraph) have found that charismatic/transformational leadership can be trained. Though the term “charisma” has been defined in various ways (often to the dissatisfaction of critical academics), the leadership seen in this era certainly persist to this day.

The “Post-transformational” Era (2000’s and beyond)

I hesitate to call this the “post-transformational” or “post-charismatic” era, but this is the term many scholars use for the modern era in the leadership literature. Many say that this is a time of authenticity, where leaders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (both considered charismatic in their own ways) are refreshing contrasts to their contemporaries in the same political context. Daniel Goleman (1998) argues for the acceptance and significance of emotional intelligence, while others have tried to use personality psychology to find links to leadership (e.g., the famous “Big Five” typology has been studied and it appears that only extroversion predicts leadership). Researchers are also emphasizing organizational structure in leadership, such as by moving from bureaucracies to more team-based structures, though this is much easier said than done.

Dunphy & Stace 1993

Another important facet of leadership is how it relates to change (such as the structural change just mentioned). Many theorists (such as Dunphy and Stace in 1993) have devised models of change management, but when it comes to changing well-established routines and conventions, even the most charismatic leaders can have a great deal of difficulty. The Dunphy and Stace model, for example, assumes that there are a varieties of change strategies to choose from, but this says nothing about workers’ apprehensions or resistance to such change, which makes the model too optimistically simplistic.

Barbara Kellerman argued in 2012 that followers are actually more important than they have ever been before, and the importance of leaders has never been as low as it is now. Whether you agree with her or not, we know that workers’ reactions are the biggest factors in the success of a change initiative. In fact, there is now more than ever an emphasis on the relationships within the organization when it comes to leadership, which is probably a good thing for today’s employees.

The Bottom Line

It would take a lot more than a simple article to investigate every theory of leadership there is available today, but leadership has evolved from a primitive view of being a “born leader” to one that encapsulates the relationship with the follower. The question is no longer “can leadership be made?” but “how can leadership be made?” Naturally, the answer depends on who you ask.

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