History of Leadership Theories

As societies have evolved over the last two centuries, so have the leadership theories that have been consistently practiced. The need for leadership has not changed over this time, even though the theories that try to explain effective leadership have been altered. The end result is that there are now dozens of theories that help to explain niche areas of leadership so that a leader can identify their natural tendencies and then develop skills to become more effective leaders.

It all began with the development of Galton’s Great Man theory back in the 1840′s. The easiest way to describe this theory is “hero worship.” We follow certain historical figures because we can identify with certain traits or decisions that they have made. We feel like we would be able to have a relationship with them if they were around today. Now we look at every situation and present evidence that changing circumstances often require changing leadership styles.

Why Is a Changing Leadership Style So Effective?

Different people respond to different leadership influences. Some workers love a clear chain-of-command where they can have their tasks dictated to them with specificity. Others thrive in a creative environment where they get to dictate the terms and circumstances of the work that they are assigned. The leader becomes responsible for inspiring and motivating both types of workers, and every type of worker in-between them, toward success.

That’s why situational and transformative leadership styles are stress so much today. Yet even when transformation takes place, workers need to feel like they are appreciated. They need to be held to a certain level of accountability as well. This is where transactional leadership theories supplement the history of leadership. Rewards and consequences that are appropriately implemented can also become motivating tools.

With so many leadership theories in place and some of them even conflicting with each other, there is one definite fact: the topic of leadership may be one of the topics we know the least about right now, even with over a century of research.

What Does the Future of Leadership Hold?

The future of leadership is going to include technology on an ever-increasing basis. As lives become more entangled with constant technological influence and wearables become a normal part of life, leaders will be able to influence a team from half a world away. This will present its own set of unique challenges that will eventually spawn future theories of leadership that we can’t even conceive right now.

Future leaders might also need to be more self-motivated than ever before. Although there will always be organizational support, the trend of the digital worker is to create an independent environment where creativity and outcomes are stressed more than leadership theories and productivity quotas. Even that is likely to inspire future leadership theories.

From the Great Man theory of leadership to situational and transactional leadership to whatever the future may hold, the history of leadership shows us that the more we have tried to understand what leaders do and how they do it, the more questions we tend to have.

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