Leadership Perspectives

Leadership perspectives

Leadership has engaged the minds of sages and scholars since ancient times and through more than 100 years of scientific study. However, after centuries of historic ponderings and thousands of scientific studies, 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 of 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 different aspects of the same complex process.

Attempting to add yet another definition of leadership will not clarify a concept that remains elusive, but exploring leadership through various perspectives might help provide insight into a complex phenomenon. To illuminate this elusive concept, the Leadership category will do the following:

  • Review the understandings of leadership from ancient times through contemporary dialogues.
  • Summarize the traditional and contemporary theories that have emerged through the scientific study of leadership.
  • Explore emerging perspectives that apply new discoveries in neurological psychology and complexity theory to gain a deeper understanding of leadership.
  • Conduct a discussion about the relevancy of academic leadership research to practical applications, arguing that academic knowledge does not translate into effective leadership, but can contribute to enhancing leadership effectiveness when combined with experience.
  • Offer an integrative perspective for gaining insight, awareness, and tools for enhancing the ability to influence others, while providing followers with knowledge about how to inoculate themselves from undue influence.



Traditional leadership theories

Contemporary theories of leadership

  • Transformational and transactional leadership
  • Leader-member exchange
  • The role followers play in leadership

Emerging perspectives of leadership

  • The new science of leadership
  • The new psychology of leadership



Bass, B. M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory and managerial applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2005). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35-71.
Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Defining the indefinable phenomena of leadership

From perceiving the leader as a great man who molds the future to see the leader as any individual who acts on faith, a brief inventory of leadership perspectives helps to illuminate the challenges of understanding leadership and how to be an effective leader. However, neither promotes understanding of leadership nor enhances the ability to lead. Exploring definitions offered by contemporary scholars may provide some additional enlightenment.

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A great leader's hiring decisions can undermine the mission: How Lincoln's choices of generals almost lost a war

Unlike many who have natural ability and the work ethic to excel, Abraham Lincoln had something that few leaders seem to possess: humility. However, his combination of humility and perserverance might have contributed to hiring decisions and employee practices that hindered his mission and threatened the outcome of the Civil War.

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Leadership vs Management debate more myth than reality

Platitudes that assert leadership and management are diametrically opposed concepts promote an inaccurate stereotype that tarnishes understanding of both while diminishing the potential effectiveness of those who adopt the axiom as a guiding philosophy.

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Building an organization that doesn't need leadership

Contingency theories that attempt to explain influence of a powerful superior on subordinates are limited because they fail to consider factors that can mitigate the effectiveness or need for leadership. Individual, groups, tasks, and other variables can act as substitutes for leadership that diminish effectiveness of or need for leadership regardless of the behavior or style. Substitutes for leadership theory offers an intuitive explanation about how different leadership actions have different results in different situations.

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Evolution of leadership perspectives from “great man” to "any one"

Leadership Perspectives

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".

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  • Traditional leadership theories

    Though the scientific study of leadership has offered numerous definitions of leadership, the traditional perspectives tend to fall under three general frameworks: traits, behavior, and situation. Scholarship has recognized the value of each perspective for understanding a part of the leadership puzzle. However, isolating perspectives can lead to methodological myopia by limiting understanding to a single perspective, limiting leadership capacity in dynamic contexts. Integrating and synthesizing different perspectives can provide a more complete understanding of leadership, improving leadership effectiveness regardless of the situation.

    The Traditional Leadership Theories section will review the contributions and limitations of the traditional perspectives offered by scientific study of leadership, and will conclude by arguing that isolating traits, behaviors, or situational variables provides an incomplete picture of a dynamic process; leadership is not traits, behavior, or situation, it is an interaction among all of these elements and more.

    Following are the key theories this section will cover:

    • Traits make the leader
    • Behavior is the leader
    • Context is the leader
    • Interaction is the leader