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Stenciled evolution of man from ape past to mobile-headed.
Approaches to leadership have evolved significantly over time.

Modern leadership thinking

While concepts of leadership have evolved over time, understanding contemporary approaches to leadership will help inform your exploration of leadership throughout the rest of this course.

In the words of George Santayana, ‘those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’, which is why it’s important to be aware of and understand different theories and approaches to leadership.

Leadership thinking from the 20th century onwards has changed significantly. Understanding what these changes are will help you reflect on whether your concept of leadership is contemporary or stuck in the past.

It should further be noted that despite the emergence of female leaders in the public consciousness during the 19th and early 20th century, most leadership writing has been both very masculine and dominated by Western researchers.

A timeline of leadership thought

1900–1930embed image here From 1900–1930 leadership focused on the running of organisations, particularly large heavy industrial enterprises with a focus on command, control, and centralisation, characterised by ‘the ability to impress the will of the leader on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty, and cooperation’ (Steward 1905).
1930sembed image here During the 1930s, traits became the main focus of leadership definitions and the view that leadership was a matter of influence, as opposed to domination emerged. The interaction of leaders and the led was also explored.
1940sembed image here This led to a shift in the 1940s to define leaders in terms of group activities; directing groups with persuasion becoming a big issue in definitions of leadership.
1950sembed image here Indeed, this idea progressed into the 1950s where the common view was that leadership is what leaders do in groups.
1960sembed image here Social changes in the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement, solidified this idea, but looked more closely at the behaviours people could enact to influence others towards shared goals.
1970sembed image here Given these social changes, the impact of context and situation on leadership came to the fore in the 1970s.
1980sembed image here By the 1980s, the growth of corporations worldwide led to an explosion of scholarly work that created huge divergence in the literature. Competing themes included: Do as the leaders wish, influence, traits, and transformation.
1990sembed image here These themes continued into the 1990s, but took on more socially responsible tones, with a focus on issues such as leadership diversity and ethical conduct.
2000 onwardsembed image here This took on even more importance after 9/11 and other corporate scandals in the 2000s such as Enron and Worldcom. Ethics became central to any discussion of leadership and all accredited business schools were compelled to include ethics when teaching leadership.

Key theories

The following theories emerged in the last century to help us better understand leadership and provide a range of lenses to examine the study and practice of leadership.

  • Great Man theories: mid-19th century
  • Trait theories: 1930–1940s
  • Behavioural theories: 1940s–1950s
  • Contingency theories: 1960s onwards
  • Transactional/transformational leadership: 1970s onwards
  • Implicit leadership theories: 1970s onwards
  • Charismatic leadership: 1980s
  • Contemporary theories: eg authentic leadership, servant leadership, spiritual leadership, dispersed leadership

Your task

Reflect on the following question and share your response in the comments:

  • Has leadership as a concept become too broad and does it encompass too many things to be a useful concept in the workplace?
  • As leadership is a dynamic and changing term is its practice simply a reflection of the times?
  • In a relativistic world, is leadership anything you want it to be?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The most important thing is to challenge your thinking and being able to justify your position to others.


Flamm, M (n.d.), George Santayana (1863—1952), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Steward (1905) in Moore (1927) as cited in Rost JC 1993, Leadership for the twenty-first century, Greenwood Publishing Group, CT, p. 47.

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What is Leadership?

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