Putting leadership into context – Part I


Source: Leading Them to Success

In management literature the importance of leadership has been gaining recognition since the beginning of the twentieth century. In recent years and at the backdrop of the 2008 economic crisis, its role has gained even greater significance and the availability of ‘expert advice’ has grown exponentially. Nowadays it almost seems as if everything has become a topic of leadership. By looking from afar, however, an obvious question immediately emerges: can we apply the same leadership concepts in as diverse environments as, for example, small private start-ups, large bureaucratic institutions or government offices, and expect them to have the same effect? To answer that, we set on a learning quest in search of possible answers.

To present leadership and its evolution as a concept – in this and the following posts – let us start where all learning journeys begin by studying what others have already written on the subject. In the first post we will have a quick look at the dominant themes that have marked the mainstream leadership literature up to date.

The early literature of the 19th century was dominated by the notion of the great man thesis. As the name implies, emphasis is put on great figures, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon, who have had a substantial effect on the society, even such that they have changed the shape and direction of history.

The Great Man Leadership Theory builds on two key premises. Firstly, it believes that leaders are born and not made and possess distinct inheritable traits. Secondly, great men arise when there is a great need for that. Many of the traits cited as being important to be an effective leader are typically masculine. Thus, women are largely overlooked by this theory despite the existence of outstanding historic female personages, such as Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, and many others.

Overlooking the role of female leaders in history and believing that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals rendered the theory controversial to say the least. Some contemporary scientists and philosophers (e.g. Herbert Spencer) deemed the theory to be primitive, childish and scientifically unfounded, whereas others (Friedrich Nietzsche, William James) believed that history would be different, if great men were suddenly incapacitated. Nevertheless and contrary to what one would intuitively expect, the ‘hero worship’ is still present in popular culture today. Its core belief that there are only a few very rare individuals in any society at any time with the unique characteristics to shape or express history still remains common nowadays.

Moving the focus from the great man thesis, in the early 20th century the first modern theory of leadership emerged. Researchers looked into the specific innate traits (physical, personal, motivational, aptitudes) of leaders and skills (communication and ability to influence) that they bring to all leadership tasks.

By using personality tests, they compared the results and looked for traits for which they believed are characteristic of a good and successful leader. Soon, researchers amassed long lists and it became obvious that they were not powerful predictors of behavior across different situations. For example, leaders must be decisive, but also flexible and inclusive. Without considering the context, leaders’ traits solely tell us little of how well a certain situation was handled.

By the 1950s, the pure trait theory was considered to be ‘too one-dimensional to account for the complexity of leadership’ (Stogdill 1948 in Van Wart, 2003). Some have gone even further, claiming that up to date no universal list has emerged that identifies the traits all great leaders possess or that will guarantee leadership success in all situations. Nevertheless, some found the trait leadership theory useful as it provides a basis against which the leadership traits of an individual can be assessed.

Thus far we have discussed two early approaches to understanding leadership. In the next post we will have a look at the remaining theories that have marked the twentieth century and early two thousands: contingency, transformational, servant and multifaceted leadership. Once we will get through the basics, we will start looking at differences between private and public sector leadership and how the phenomenon is understood in the developmental context.



Van Wart, Montgomery; Public Sector Leadership Theory: An Assessment, Public Administration Review, March/April 2003, Vol. 63, No. 2Great Man

Theory of Leadership (2016, November 28). Retrieved from: http://www.managementstudyguide.com/great-man-theory.htm#

Trait Theory of Leadership (2016, November 28). Retrieved from: http://www.educational-business-articles.com/trait-theory-of-leadership/

What Is the Trait Theory of Leadership (2016, November 28). Retrieved from: https://www.verywell.com/what-is-the-trait-theory-of-leadership-2795322


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