How Leadership Theory Started

Our understanding of Leadership has actually changed little since people first began to examine it. We’ve always understood that leadership is that quality which enables one person to motivate another to give their discretionary effort.

Is there anything special about leadership in the 21st century? Well ….. leadership hasn’t changed but two things have – context and application. And they are interrelated.

We live in more than interesting times. Change of all types is happening all around us and is accelerating exponentially.

The people we educate and who now are being prepared for life and for work have also magically evolved into people with quite different skills, beliefs and expectations to previous generations. And generally they are better educated with all the implications that this carries.

We can also quickly list the main forms of change that impact on all of us:  globalisation; a genuine acceptance of diversity; an understanding of our true place in the world order – particularly economically, etc.

There are now something like 50 apparently different models of leadership that are applied in organisations of all types all over the world. The majority are presently focused, as we will see, on Behaviour. This is not unreasonable. One observation here is that most, the vast majority, of these theories and models are actually variations on a theme. They are rooted in the same core ideas. As more spill onto the market there is real interest in understanding this.

Additionally there are two (perhaps more) factors that are now significant in pushing and pulling our understanding of leadership:

  • Leadership Development which only addresses behaviour can have limited impact. There is a need to understand and develop the mindset of individuals – how they think – in order to develop intelligent leadership practice.
  • Leadership behaviour and development applies to everyone – not just those who have the word manager or leader in their job title. We can all make a difference to the motivation of those with whom we interact.

What follows is a whistle stop tour through the history of leadership theory development which hopefully traces how and why we have got to where we are.

We can start our journey thousands of years ago. Leadership was a term applied to a very few people who were in positions of influence – militarily and/or in a Religious setting and/or politically and that was usually about rulers who often inherited the role of leader where others were expected to accept it.

Eventually this led to the so called Great Man Theory it was not difficult to identify great leaders (back to Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, etc – the creators of empires and key figures in virtually every major religion who attracted followers). Even today if, running a workshop, one asked people to name great leaders it will include those from history and people will often add Churchill, Thatcher, Ghandi, Mao and even Hitler, and Stalin.

The assumption being that somehow they possessed special characteristics which were usually inherent in the individual …. “Leaders were born … not made”.

Rather than being a formal theory, this theory is a belief that personal qualities and abilities make natural leaders of certain great persons. By examining the behaviour of great leaders we might be able to identify what it is that makes them great leaders – and adopt these to achieve the same effect.

The fact that often the relatives of great leaders are also put into positions of power may indicate that there is some belief in this notion of in-born leadership ability. In fact, most evidence shows that this is an interesting area for study but yields little that is truly useful.

Moreover close examination of many of these great leaders suggests that they were products of their times and when in a different setting they were less effective.

In the next post in the series we will look at how things moved on the 1930’s – 50’s with Trait and Behavioural Theories

Doug Strycharczyk, CEO AQR International

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