As my regular readers (a small but mighty band) know, my doctoral work focuses on organizational leadership and how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way we define what it means to lead at work. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how different corporate leadership looks right now compared with three months ago and how this period fits into the pantheon of leadership thought and theory.
Although human beings have been leading themselves and others for centuries, the study of leadership theory began only in the last two hundred years. Since Thomas Carlyle put forward his “Great Man” theory of leadership starting in the 1840s, scholars and practitioners have developed new models and frameworks to explain how people inspire action and act on inspiration. Iterative and evolutionary, these leadership theories were shaped by the social, economic, and political context in which they were developed and by the ideas and beliefs that came before them. Considering the history of leadership theory, distinct periods reveal themselves. Often, multiple theories, some seemingly at odds with one another, exist within these epochs, revealing that the development process was nonlinear and, frequently, transient. Looking at the theories holistically, with the benefit of hindsight, allows for the creation of a leadership tableau that highlights the key developments and concepts associated with each era and informs current perspectives.
Ushered in by Thomas Carlyle, the first major period of leadership thought focused primarily on individual leaders, producing entity-based theories. Great Man and trait-based leadership theories epitomize this age. In a 1990 article, scholar Albert King termed this period the “Personality Era” in recognition of the emphasis placed on the study of specific traits, characteristics, and attributes of individuals perceived as leaders. Cementing the idea of personality as central to leadership, and giving this era its name, was a study of undergraduate student government leaders conducted by A. O. Bowden in 1926. As reported, Bowden’s sample of all male, all white participants were overwhelmingly extroverted, gregarious, and mentally stable. However, the study offered no empirical evidence to support these claims. To the contrary, Bowen’s conclusions revealed wholly subjective assessments of ambiguous criteria, describing the young men as possessed of “splendid insight and good judgment … [with] no ‘freak’ personalities in the group” (Bowden, 1926, p. 149). As exemplified by William O. Jenkins in 1947, whose research revealed no universal catalog of leadership traits, much of the literature following this era focused on refuting these kinds of empirically unsubstantiated claims, while simultaneously maintaining entity-based positions (i.e., leadership is a function of individuals).
As leadership theory evolved, the focus on individuals remained but with new perspectives on behaviors and relationships introduced as well. Examples of these frameworks abound, such as the study of power and persuasion that epitomized what King termed the “Influence Age”. Spearheaded by scholars such as French and Raven, writing in 1959, and Schenk, writing in 1928, the literature of this period considered how individuals create, maintain, use, and respond to power, and the primacy of the leader in two-person (i.e., dyad) interactions. The idea of the leader as the dominant actor in a situation was established during this period and extends to contemporary thinking as can be observed in recent arguments put forth by the US Department of Justice regarding the expansion of presidential powers during a crisis. (For more on this topic and current events in general, I highly recommend the noted political historian Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American. Hat tip to Nancy for referring me to it).
Diverging from prior entity-based theories, the study of relational leadership shifted the focus away from the individuals themselves and instead to the relationships, situations, and behaviors in which they engaged. King noted that, unlike previous trait-based theories which were impractical to implement because they required leaders to mimic the personalities of others, relational theories of leadership offered opportunities to put concepts into practice. Moreover, as many scholars demonstrated, empirical evidence substantiated these theories. This turn gave rise to what King describes as the “Behavioral Era”, which was followed by an even greater turn away from the study of individuals and more toward understanding the external factors at play, such as situational context and the broader environment, known as the “Situational Era”.
Historically, many schools of leadership thought have evolved at separate times, meaning that certain concepts loop back on themselves. Both Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, which argued that leaders achieved the greatest success when they were in situations that fit their styles, skills, and capacity, and Vroom and Yetton’s Normative Theory, which advanced the notion that leaders should select their leadership style based on the situation, represent classic examples of one approach to leadership theory melding with another. Although both Contingency Theory and Normative Theory derive from situational leadership thinking, the also acknowledge the multifaceted and interdependent nature of leadership which characterized the “Contingency Era”.
The notion that the many elements are at play at one time require hybrid and mixed-theory approaches paved the way for the more sophisticated theories that followed, such as the Transactional and Transformational theories of leadership. Transactional leadership is based on maintaining existing conditions through quid pro quo, where workers complete tasks in exchange for a reward. An example of this approach is the leader-member exchange (LMX) model, still widely studied today. LMX addresses how the diverse types of relationships established between leaders and followers, from close, trusted connections to limited oversight interactions, affect work outcomes. Contrastingly, transformational leadership looks to either altruistically enabling the growth and success of followers or fostering self-serving but mutually advantageous outcomes for both leader and follower l, depending upon your perspective. It’s key to remember that the only difference between persuasion and manipulation is whether you like the outcome.
Two theories reflective of transformational leadership theory are authentic leadership and servant leadership. Authentic leadership is concerned with leader transparency and willingness to incorporate follower feedback into future decision making. Similarly, servant leadership centers followers, calling on leaders to direct their energies toward equipping, supporting, and enabling others to achieve success.
Many recent leadership theories remain in a state of development with some receiving more attention and critique than others. Most notably, adaptive and complexity theories of leadership have emerged as potentially actionable approaches to the dynamic and multidimensional challenges currently facing organizations. Proponents of adaptive leadership urge practitioners to consider it as a tool, providing a means to facilitate shared decision-making and encourage broad engagement within organizations. The idea of theory-as-tool is gaining traction, particularly among scholars considering leadership within complex adaptive systems. It is also advancing thinking around leadership as an ongoing action, a practice. From this new way of thinking, Leadership-As-Practice has arisen as a novel way of conceptualizing leadership as an interdisciplinary movement. Previous theories, whether entity-based or relational, considered leadership as an object, whereas L-A-P views leadership as action. As such, L-A-P represents a view of leadership as socially constructed, rather than objectively entitative. Representing a significant turn in both thinking and scholarship, L-A-P presents entirely new ways of exploring leadership and challenges the way researchers and practitioners study people and organizations.
More to come on this topic…
We are entering a time where remote working and increased unemployment will likely lead some leaders to adopt more personality-based approaches that provide for command-and-control leadership, centering the leader as the source of guidance and direction in uncertain times. At the same time, we are seeing technology and evolving networks of individuals interacting exclusively electronically driving more distributed decision making and sharing leadership more broadly among themselves and their teams. Although my views are still forming, I perceive that we are headed toward a new theory of leadership that is networked and distributed, as opposed to centralized or shared.
[Personal note: I’m not doing particularly well at the moment. Social distancing has evolved into more shelter-in-place and I’m frustrated. Just as I started to really turn a corner and felt like I was getting back to living, I’m finding myself forcibly disengaged and isolated. Although I hoped this time of decreased external opportunities would provide me with greater opportunity to work on my dissertation and classes, it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, I find myself even more distracted than I was before. Despite my desire for things to be different, I recognize my privilege in that neither my husband nor I are at imminent risk of losing our livelihoods and we are healthy and well as a family. Writing about my organizational leadership work is helping me to stay grounded.]