The Evolution of Leadership

Leaders have emerged in historical records since the invention of writing. No matter what period of history and no matter what institution – religion, government, business, academia, etc. – humankind has had leaders.

But even though we had leaders ever since, the practice of leadership and its principles have greatly changed over the past century. One could argue that the best practices in leadership have changed with each new academic breakthrough. Still, humans have been physiologically identical for at least 300,000 years, having the same brain chemistry, motivational triggers, and emotional needs.

With that being said, given the right context, leadership strategies that worked thousands of years ago can be effective at inspiring people today. But the effectiveness of a leadership strategy depends on the context within which it is executed. Leadership needed to evolve because our human context has evolved. Social, professional, and technological environments have changed over the years.

These are some of the theories exemplifying the milestones in the evolution of leadership:

Early Leadership Theories (Mid-1800’s to 1940s)

The study of leadership is surprisingly recent, given that people are leading and being led for millenniums. These are the early theories that support the idea of leadership during the mid-19th century to the pre-war 20th century.

The Great Man Theory

The study on the field of leadership began with what has been known as the “Great Man Theory.” It was coined by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s and presupposed that leaders are born to lead. According to the adherents of this theory, certain men were born with innate traits that make them destined to be a leader. Researchers examined past leaders like Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and other great men in history. Their leadership assumed a certain born ability to lead. People were told that to be a leader, they need to emulate the great leaders of the ancient past.

Obviously, this theory has flaws. There’s no way to measure its validity, and how any person decides who is a great leader and who is not is subjective and biased.

Trait Theory

The Trait Theory was born out of the early Great Man Theory. When the Great Man Theory was popular among leadership circles, it asserts that leaders cannot be thought and that some men are born leaders. As you can imagine, leaders were supposed to be men in that age, considering that this was still a time wherein slavery was acceptable, and gender equality was inexistent.

Then, there came a period of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, in which the Nazi party rose to power in Germany. This led to the creation of the Trait Theory, which was a lot similar to the earlier theory, but with more emphasis on well-defined traits. Trait theorists explained that there are certain qualities needed, such as motivation and ambition, high energy, integrity, competence, intelligence, faith, etc.

Critics of this theory state that many people who possess such qualities are not necessarily leaders. The main problem with this idea, still, is that leaders are thought to be born only, not made. There is no viable evidence to support the theory and does not account for the situation or circumstances in which leaders find themselves.

Interregnum Period

There was no definite time to define when one period of leadership theory ends, and when another begins. When certain leaders are in a time of great conflict and turmoil, leadership evolves.

Power and Influence Theories

When the failings of the Great Man and Trait Theory are acknowledged, researchers considered the idea of power and tried to study it. The focus of this theory was on the amount of power acquired by the leader and the way it was utilized to influence or persuade their followers.

Power and Influence theories are proposed during the years of World War II. The cataclysmic events happening in the world cannot be disregarded during the development of this theory. People looked up to strong leaders in the likes of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Mao, and others.

But like the prior theories, the power and influence theory is hard to justify due to the lack of empirical data.

Post-War Theories (the 1940s to 1960s)

A survey of research during this time saw the rise of new leadership theories. It is said to be dependent on the context. The growth of the United States after World War II commercially and culturally led to the rise of national and multi-national corporations that employ thousands of employees. The idea promoted under the Great Man and other early theories simply cannot support an adequate understanding of leadership.

Behavioral Theory

The behavior theory of leadership examined the actions of a leader, as opposed to their personality. This is a step forward from the unsupported theories earlier, as this theory assumes that leadership can be learned rather than being inherent. The initial view states that while the leader focused on accomplishing a task, he or she had a concern and an understanding of group cohesiveness, as well as the individual members of the group. It is based on the principle that behaviors can be conditioned in a way that a leader has a specific response to given stimuli.

There was a lot of data and studies related to the behavioral theory in leadership. The results of the studies were not always consistent with theories. Plus, some elements were not considered, as the studies existed in a vacuum, ignoring the situation and environment of a leader.

Managerial Grid

The Managerial Grid leadership theory can be categorized under the behavioral theory. During the 1950s, researchers from the University of Michigan published interviews they conducted on adept and inept workers and found two trends in the behavior of leaders. It states that leaders were either concerned about the well-being of their subordinates or with getting the work done.

This lead to the development of the Managerial Grid (1964), which can be used to identify and plot the leadership style of a leader. They use scales of concern for people vs. concern for production. With this theory, consideration varies per culture.

Situation and Contingency Era (the 1960s to 1980s)

To recognize the role the environment plays in a leader-subordinate dynamic, the situational theory was added. Finally, acknowledging that certain environmental factors must be taken into consideration, besides the behavior and the personality of a leader. During the time, leadership was becoming separated from the individual as a leader, and leadership becomes more of a function or a process by which an organization or group can accomplish its goals.

The situation and contingency approach lead to a shift in the view of leadership, as it can now be seen as fluid and ever-changing to the situation.

Situational Leadership

The Situational Theory of leadership presumes that great leaders are more the product of circumstantial factors than innate ability. Developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the 1970s, the theory states that leaders must be willing to adapt to one of these four leadership styles: delegating, directing, coaching, or supporting – according to the situation or their followers.

This theory is simple and widely applicable, but it fails into account for demographic characteristics and doesn’t give leaders some room to play to their strengths as an individual.

Contingency Model

The Leadership Contingency Model by Fred Fiedler (1967) uses the term “least-preferred coworker” (LPC) to determine if leaders are more concerned with tasks or people. The LPC is derived from ratings of how much tedious someone is to work with. This approach depends on excellent leader-member relations, task structure, and position power.

Critics found different pros and cons to this theory, but Fiedler went on to develop it. He developed a leader-situation matching training to help leaders match their LPC scores with the situation. Though this idea is convoluted and questionable, there are still many supporting studies that provide evidence for the effectiveness of this theory.

Path-Goal Theory

Another popular leadership model is the Path-Goal Theory, which states that the roles of the leader and subordinate remain delineated, with the leader directing, and the subordinate following. It argues that the direct followers must follow the leader so they can know where to go, eliminate obstacles, and be rewarded for their performance. What determines the effectiveness of the leader in the leadership style, as well as the situation and the followers.

This approach, created by Robert House, was an off-shoot of the contingency theory.

Leadership in the Modern Era (the 1980s and beyond)

Each theory has its place in the study of leadership. By the late 20th century to the turn of the 21st, the modern era saw concerns regarding leadership that have not been addressed by past theories.

Transformational Theory

The theory of transformational leadership is the most prominent leadership theory of the late 20th century, and its influence can still be felt to this day. This theory states that leaders must inspire their followers so they can work with them towards a greater common vision. In this method, leaders and followers mutually help each other to increase motivation. In this theory, the burden of leadership rests upon all individuals of the group or organization working to achieve a common goal.

The hallmarks of transformational leadership are change and adaptability. Some may argue that this theory in practice requires traditional leadership traits like confidence and charisma. The elements from this type of leadership are present in the ideal modern leaders.

Authentic Leadership

Simply put, authentic leaders focus on the authenticity of the person in charge, as well as their actual leadership. It’s a fairly recent theory that’s still in the early phases of development. It’s an approach to leadership that emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy and authenticity through developing honest relationships with followers. Authentic leaders are known to be positive, truthful, and promote openness. By building trust, the leader is able to improve the individual and group performance of the team or organization.

This is a theory that moved towards leadership being a social construct that applies all aspects of group dynamics and other non-tangible factors.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is another recent approach that arose from the transformative approach. It emphasizes the caring of subordinates in which the leader takes to mind the needs of the followers, letting it take priority over the needs of the organization.

Researchers suggest that this approach to leadership allows the opportunity for followers to emerge as future leaders.