Evolution of leadership perspectives from “great man” to "any one"
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Historical perspectives of leadership influenced volumes of writings about great and infamous leaders who shaped societies and civilizations and offered limitless maxims about what makes a great leader. However, thousands of years of ponderings have failed to determine if leadership is a result of "great man" or "anyone".
Note: "Evolution of Leadership Perspectives" is an excerpt from Dr. Brent Duncan's exploration of leadership studies to discover integrative insight, awareness, and tools for enhancing the ability to influence others--while providing followers with knowledge about how to innoculate themselves from undue influence.
Leadership has engaged the minds of sages and scholars since ancient times and through more than 100 years of scientific study. However, even after thousands of years of historic ponderings and thousands of scientific studies on leadership, the nature and the definition of leadership remain elusive. Each ancient society developed its own definitions and understanding of leadership (Bass, 2008), while contemporary scholars and writers have added so many perspectives that some argue that defining leadership is near impossible (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005).
Today leadership remains a “mysterious process” (Yukl, 2010, p. 1) with as many definitions as people who have attempted to define the concept (Stogdill, 1948). Each definition depends on the perspective of the definer and generally falls within categories like traits, behaviors, context, psychology, relationships, position, power, and all the above. A multitude of divergent definitions does not mean that any of them are wrong, but that each provides a different perspective that helps illuminate various aspects of the same complicated process.
The greatest among you
A brief inventory of leadership perspectives from throughout history can help illuminate the value of ancient wisdom for understanding an elusive process that remains elusive today (Bass, 2008).
- Taoism proposed that leaders should act in such a way that followers think success is from their own efforts.
- The Greeks believed that great leaders are just, wise, shrewd, and courageous.
- Confucian philosophy emphasized that leaders should set a moral example and use rewards and punishments to mold moral behavior.
- Ancient Egyptians believed that leadership consists of not only leaders but also of followers, and developed structures for enforcing leadership control over the followers.
- The Old Testament offered prophets, priests, and kings like Abraham, Moses, and David; these leaders represented a jealous God who rewarded and punished followers and non-followers based their actions and beliefs.
- The New Testament presented moral and persuasive servant leaders like Jesus and Paul, who encouraged followers and non-followers to use their free agency to follow a benevolent God, who would repeatedly forgive them for their behaviors if they believed and repented.
Such varying historical perspectives influenced volumes of writings about great and infamous leaders who shaped societies and civilizations and offered limitless maxims about what makes a great leader. The experience and wisdom of the ages remain influential in popular dialogues and literature and provide scholars with a rich resource of concepts to test through research.
For example, the ideal of democratic leadership practice and recent writings on servant leadership ring familiar with ancient views from around the world. In circa 600 BCE, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that the leader must “place yourself below them. If you want to lead people, you must learn how to follow them” (Mitchell, 1988, p. 66). Later, Jesus would admonish that “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
The nature within you
The scientific study of leadership started in the 19th century when researchers attempted to isolate the traits that make great leaders. Through the trait perspective, leaders are great men who have innate abilities to control others. By the mid-20th century, the trait perspective had become “outmoded” (Bennis & Nanus, 1985, p. 170) because statistical techniques did not exist to validate its assumptions (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991) and because it failed to account for the situational and behavioral factors that influence leadership success (Yukl, 2010; Jex, 2002).
Researchers turned their attention to understanding the behaviors that contributed to effective leadership. The behavioral perspective isolates the actions that differentiate effective leaders from ineffective leaders so that research can be used to train leaders to use the best style of leadership. Researchers could not identify a “best” method of study because they tended to find that different approaches work better for different situations.
The context around you
The situational theories that emerged in the mid-20th century reflected how different situations require different leadership styles. Situational leadership perspectives see that the situation defines the leader; leadership emerges when an individual meets the needs of the situation. In the 1970s, Dansereau, Graen, and Haga (1975) offered a leader-member exchange theory, which proposed that leaders use different styles with different members within the same group.
James MacGregor Burns’ (1978) transformational leadership theory rekindled trait theory in the 1980s by offering a perspective that sees a transformational leader as an individual with a unique set of attributes for driving significant change in organizations and society, and a transactional leader as an individual with a different set of characteristics for organizing tasks and people to accomplish goals. Around the same period, scholars started to see leadership as an interaction between followers and leaders. This perspective produced followership theory, which considers the role followership plays in good leadership (Kelley, 1996).
The interactions among your associations
Contemporary scholars recognize that focusing on leaders, characteristics, followers, behaviors, situations, or other variables as separate factors can provide a limited perspective of a complex phenomenon. Instead, understanding leadership may require exploring the interaction among the leader, the followers, and the situation (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005; Fiedler, 1964).
While historical, classical, and contemporary perspectives tend to focus on a leader who overcomes circumstances versus a leader who is defined by circumstances, neurological psychology is offering a view that sees leadership as neither circumstance nor adaptation, but as a symbiotic relationship among leaders and followers (Reicher, Platow, & Haslam, 2007).
Through this relationship perspective, researchers shift their attention away from leadership as a top-down process to see a mutual interaction that influences leaders and followers. Emerging discoveries in systems theory, chaos theory, and quantum physics illuminate how the traditional and contemporary leadership models may be insufficient for portraying leadership in the complex and dynamic social systems of the 21st century (Wheatley, 2006).
The invisible around you
Rather than attempting to understand leadership by isolating parts and identifying cause-and-effect, the new sciences offer a holistic perspective that attempts to understand leadership by seeing the associations within networks. Building blocks of leadership fade, and the unseen associations among separate factors become the fundamental ingredient of leadership effectiveness.
From this perspective, the concept of leadership becomes fully democratized, with a leader being any individual who influences others to change the world (Wheatley, 2006). This means that understanding leadership is no longer limited to analyzing the contributions of great people or the impact of infamous leaders but is expanding to explore the influential role that followers have on one another and on leaders.
Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (2005) take this democratization of leadership to the point of platitude, proposing that “every one of us has to be a leader [to] make a difference” (p. 14). Wheatley takes this further by defining a leader as “anyone who wants to help… create change in their world” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 196), then promoting training programs to teach individuals how to be activists for political causes.
The new sciences offer insights about how individuals can influence societies by emphasizing the role of forces, waves, possibilities, and other intangible forces on social phenomena. Acknowledging the intangible invites scholars and practitioners to “give up predictability” and “facts,” and to focus on “potentials” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 35).
Reminiscent of the ancients, the emerging sciences compel leadership scholars and practitioners explore leadership as “an act of faith” (p. 47).
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Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao Te Ching: A new English version. Retrieved November 25, 2010, from Tao Te Ching translations: http://www.duhtao.com/index.html
Reicher, S. D., Platow, M. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2007, August). The new psychology of leadership. Scientific American Mind, 18(4), 22.
Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35-71.
Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.
(C) 2020 by Brent Duncan, PhD. All rights reserved.