At Work

The History and Future of Leadership: How Times Have Changed

By: McCrindle

When you think of great leaders, who do you envision? Martin Luther King? Mother Theresa? Greta Thunberg? In life, leaders take many forms. From those who influence us daily to sporting coaches, mentors and political leaders.  Leadership theory and practices have changed over time. In this blog and podcast, we take a look at the evolution of leadership.

The “born to rule” theory of leadership

In ancient times leadership was about ‘great man theory’. It was often a label of someone who was a strong man, like a military leader. Examples that come to mind are Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Many of these leaders were almost exclusively male. And there was this sense that they stepped into it because they were born to rule.

This idea began to change as research started to emerge in the 19th century. People began to think that leadership was about more than someone being born to rule.

The “right stuff” theory of leadership

The theory that leaders have certain traits or a personality/ temperament that makes them a good leader began to emerge. A lot of military leadership and cadet programs were founded on this, trying to find people who had the “right stuff”. But even what is deemed to be “the right stuff” has changed over time. Earlier in history it was about genetics and physical traits. Strength and size. Then it evolved from a focus on physical characteristics to cognitive characteristics.

The “leaders are made” theory of leadership

In the mid-20th century, leadership theory was focused on the behavioural theory of leaders. This is the idea that leaders can be developed and trained. We now understood that leaders did not have to be born to rule, as previously thought, but that a leader can be made. Through upskilling, training and education, people could become leaders. This is reflected in the growth of MBA programs, management training and leadership courses. It was the idea that through education, one can develop the skills and behaviours that a leader requires.

The “situational theory” of leadership

In the late 20th century, leadership moved away from trade theory and behavioural theory to the contingent theory, which is that leadership depends on your circumstances. It is the idea that different leaders will arise in different circumstances. We can’t just have the same type of leaders with the same training program behind them. Indeed, we change our leadership style depending on the situation we’re in. This meant contingent theory merged with a situational leadership model.

Take a business context as an example. At times you need to be very participative and supportive of your team. At other times you might need to be a bit autocratic because it’s an urgent/survival situation. The leadership style will change depending on the circumstance and different contexts will require different leaders who may look very different to others.

The future of leadership

As people recognise the diversity of our times and the speed of change, leadership has shifted to a focus on understanding people. It’s about the attitude we have to others. It’s about in-demand people skills. It’s about our own character and resilience and the ability to listen to others and not just to step forward.

A lot of the old theories have waned as we’ve recognised that leadership now requires a different approach because the context has changed. It’s great that leadership has moved away from hierarchy or hereditary. It’s not about the training. It’s not about the course or training you did. Rather it’s about understanding people, your own character, the circumstances that you’re in and deciding to step forward and lead by empowering others with a team centric approach instead of relying on power or authority that used to be hallmarks of leadership.

Leaders today will do well to recognise that the old strengths that leaders used to bring (like pure physicality, a domineering sense that they had it all together, and one clear and trained approach to a situation) does not resonate anymore. Rather, leaders that lead with a focus on people and authenticity are the ones that have influence in this rapidly changing world.


Article supplied with thanks to McCrindle.

About the Author: McCrindle are a team of researchers and communications specialists who discover insights, and tell the story of Australians – what we do, and who we are.

Feature image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash  

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