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Evolution of Leadership Theories

Evolution of Leadership Theories


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Leadership is, and always has been, a vital aspect of social and economic constructs. It is
essential to the survival of societies, industries, organizations, and virtually any group of
individuals that come together for a common purpose. However, leadership is difficult to define
in a single, definitive sense. As such, theories of leadership, what constitutes a great leader, and
how leaders are made have evolved constantly throughout history, and still continue to change
today in hopes of improving upon our understanding of leadership, its importance, and how it
can be most effective in modern organizational cultures.
This evolving trend of leadership can generally be seen throughout four distinct eras, the Great
Man Leadership era, the Rational Management era, the Team or Lateral Leadership era, and the
Learning Leadership era (Daft, 2008, p. 21). Each era utilized a different way of thinking about
leadership and leaders than the others, with each new era implementing a unique trend for
leadership theories, and sometimes adapting and building upon existing leadership theories.
The Great Man Leadership era was the earliest era, employed first by ancient philosophers, such
as Plato and Aristotle, who believed that leaders were naturally born with special abilities that
made them inherently great leaders (DeGrosky, 2007). The first leadership theory, called the
Great Man theory, outlined that these great men were simply born to be leaders, and that no
other man could hope to become a leader. These leaders were idolized as being naturally-born
superior humans, usually kings, emperors, and military generals (DeGrosky, 2007). The Great
Man theory focused on identifying these leaders in order to place them into positions of
leadership, since they believed that leaders were simply born this way, and could not be
otherwise trained or created (Horner, 2007, p. 270).
Following the Great Man theory were the trait theories, beginning around the 1920s (Daft, 2008,
p. 19). Still a part of the Great Man Leadership era, these trait theories just went a step further in
attempting to pinpoint exactly which traits of these great men were consistently associated
with the leaders, in an effort to more clearly define what a great leader was. This was again a
further attempt to be able to identify a leader early on and predict which individuals were born to
become leaders. It is thought that a major flaw with these theories was the failure to account for
external factors, such as the environment in which the individuals were brought up in, as well as
the situations they experienced (Horner, 2007, p. 270). Still today we do continue to study the
characteristics of leaders in order to better define and understand what makes someone a good
leader.
The next big era of leadership theories was the Rational Management era. When the previous era
failed to determine exact traits that could consistently be identified in great leaders, a shift

occurred to begin looking at how these leaders behaved, and what made them into great leaders,
rather than who they were in a specific sense. This was a major shift from thinking that people
were born leaders, to now considering that perhaps leaders could be made, or trained to become
leaders. The first of these theories, beginning in the early 1950s, were the behavior theories. The
focus of these theories was to study what these leaders do, and how they behave, that
differentiates them from ordinary people. The primary objective was to evaluate the roles,
activities, and responsibilities that leaders undertook, in order to see how they conducted and
behaved differently than someone else might have. At this point they were interested in why we
considered them to be great leaders, rather than the previous trend of simply identifying who
would be great leaders. (Daft, 2008, p. 20)
Following the behavior theories were the contingency theories, or situational theories (Daft,
2008, p. 20). The contingency theories were now concerned with identifying which behaviors
would need to be taught or altered based on the surrounding factors involved, such as the
followers, tasks, and environment (Daft, 2008, p. 20). The name contingency theory was based
on the belief that there was an interaction and interdependency between the leaders traits,
behaviors, and surroundings, such that the effects of one were contingent upon the others
(Horner, 2007, p. 271). This was a beginning of more realistic views on leadership, now realizing
that there were likely many complexities involved in the effectiveness of a leader, which would
vary depending on the external factors of an individual situation of leadership (Horner, 2007, p.
271).
The third era was called the Team or Lateral Leadership era, beginning in the early 1970s.
Largely due to drastic changes in the global economic structure and increasing commerce
competition, organizations were in need of a drastic change in leadership techniques in order to
survive and deal with the changing environmental factors. This era introduced new influence
theories of leadership, which began a whole new way of thinking that leadership required a team
effort, rather than one individual in a dictatorial existence. These theories finally recognized the
dramatic importance of the team as a whole and its impact on the effectiveness of leadership. The
focus at this point was on how leaders influenced their followers, essentially the rest of the team,
based not on position or formal authority but, rather, on the qualities and charismatic
personality of the leader (Daft, 2008, p. 20). This now allowed for leadership to be shared
among the team, where the team leader could designate any group member with the most
knowledge of a certain topic as a temporary group leader. Another new concept introduced in this
area was to examine organizational structure. It became apparent that successful leadership also
hinged on the ability to adapt to changing environments, either by adopting new opportunities
presented by cultural change, or by attempting to control the organizational culture in a manner
that agrees with implemented leadership styles. (Daft, 2008, p. 20-22)
The current era of leadership theories is the Learning Leadership era, which was largely spawned
due to the digital revolution. This era began with the introduction of relational theories of
leadership, which focus primarily on the relationship between leaders and their followers. At this
stage, we now realize that leadership requires an interaction of all participants, and not just an
empowerment of one individual. Essentially, a leader cannot be successful in leadership without
having a positive relationship with each group member, allowing for a mutual goal of achieving

the common vision of the organization. Without this critical relationship, a follower will not be
inspired to contribute, and ultimately the leadership venture will fail. (Daft, 2008, p. 20-22)
This fourth era, focusing on relationships and motivation, has also introduced a new concept of
transformational leadership. This is similar to other relational theories in the sense that it
promotes shifting leadership effectively in order to accomplish group goals efficiently. The sole
leader position encompassing all power is a thing of the past. Utilizing team dynamics and
recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each team member allows for better task
completion. This method is particularly targeted at coping with change, especially rapid change,
as was brought about by the digital age and still endures today. (Horner, 2007, p. 274)
It becomes evident now that leadership theories cannot be a static concept, but rather that these
theories must adapt dynamically to changes in social, cultural, and economic changes as they
occur. In situations where kings and dictators do not exist, the traditional theories of leadership
have little to no effectiveness. With the rapidly changing environment of todays age, leadership
theories have evolved to include methods of dealing with this change, primarily by allowing for
transformations and shifts of power amongst all of the team members. DeGrosky (2007)
emphasizes this as he reminds us that leadership is a social construct, and the specifics and
practices change as society and its values change.
In earlier times, the definition of a leader was a bit more concrete than in current times. Kings,
emperors, and military generals were considered to be natural born leaders, and thus were
essentially the definition of a leader. Through the decades, as social constructs and organizational
cultures have undergone drastic changes, this has greatly increased the complexity of leadership
theories, as well as the definition of a leader, and finally what makes a leader a great leader.
Currently, leadership theories now focus primarily on leader-follower relationships and group
dynamics, and as Daft (2008) mentions, leaders build relationships through motivation and
empowerment, leadership communication, team leadership, and embracing diversity (p. 20). It
is now recognized that leadership is a process, and no longer defined by one individual of power
enforcing this upon a group of followers. These modern leadership theories now employ that
instead of focusing on a leader and followers, they suggest studying the social process that
happens with groups of people who are engaged in an activity together (Horner, 2007, p. 278).
While todays theories do still embrace many of the concepts from early leadership theories,
most of which have been modified and adapted in some way, we now become much more
concerned with influence and relationships, rather than focusing on the directing and
commanding behaviors that were successful for leaders many years ago.