History of leadership

Leadership has for long been the centre of focus for many organizational and psychological researches. The terms “leader” and “leadership” have quite a wide gap regarding their coming into existence. “Leader” came to being in the early 1300s whereas “leadership” surfaced centuries later in 1700s (Stogdill, 1974). Scientific research on leadership started far much later in the twentieth century (Bass, 1981). From then on, research on the topic has intensified. This essay seeks to track the changes in the definitions of leadership from the turn of the 20th century up to the present.

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The evolution of leadership definitions

Defining leadership has not been that easy for scholars and practitioners. It is now more than a hundred years since academicians started researching on leadership. Through this period, the definition of leadership has undergone numerous changes. Factors such as the prevailing politics, world affairs and people’s perceptions have been responsible for this evolution of definitions. It is commonplace that persons from different social and cultural backgrounds may not view leadership in the same way. Rost (1991) examined materials published between the years 1900 and 1990. He ended up with over 200 definitions of leadership. This served as a good history on the evolution of leadership definitions through the century.

1900-1929 – During this period, leadership tended towards a central dominating power. Take the example of one leadership conference in 1927, where they defined leadership as the ability to bring the led to total respect, obedience, loyalty and cooperation through imposing the will of the leader. This left the led with little or no contribution to what ought to be achieved (Moore, 1927, p. 124).

1930s – The mainstay of leadership through this decade was influence as opposed to domination. Leadership was characterized by an individual’s characteristic traits interacting with those of a given group. The take was that the leader could change the led, and also the led could influence the leader in one way or another.

1940s – According to Hemphill (1949), leadership was basically the manner in which an individual behaves when in charge of a group of people. Copeland (1942) had earlier differentiated leading by persuasion from leading by coercion, which he coined “drivership”.

1950s – This decade comprised three themes around leadership:

Continuance of group theory – Leadership was seen in terms of the actions of leaders when in group activities.

Goal theory – Leadership was a portrayal of the character of the leader.

Effectiveness theory – Leadership was taken as the ability of an individual to improve the effectiveness of a group.

1960s – This is the decade when leadership scholars largely agreed on the definition for leadership. Among these was Seeman (1960), who defined leadership as character that mobilizes people to pursue a common goal. He asserted that one cannot be a leader without that ability to bring the minds of people to focus on a common goal.

1970s – The idea of organizational behaviour surfaced in this decade. As such, Rost (1971) viewed leadership as influencing a group to work towards a common organizational goal. Burns (1978) later nailed it when he defined leadership as that overall process of teaming up persons with particular intentions, and various political, social and economical inclinations, and causing them to work towards some common objective.

1980s – The topic of leadership received much attention among scholars during this period. Many are the definitions that mushroomed. Scholarly advances were generally on the peak during this particular decade. Here are just a handful of the themes that characterized this era.

Follow the leader – Definitions dwelt on the need for followers to do as the leader wished, without much room for the followers to reason as to whether the leader’s wishes are something to take up and pursue (Rost, 1991).

Influence – A large chunk of definitions during this decade included the word influence. And when the need arose to differentiate management with leadership, scholars painted leadership as non-coercive influence.

Traits – Peters & Waterman (1982) released In Search of Excellence. This national bestseller ignited the view of leadership as a trait.

Transformation – The view of leadership as a transformational process is attributed to Burns (1978). He asserted that leadership involves a group of people collaborating in such a manner that they raise one another to greater levels of motivation and integrity.

Into the 21st century – There is still contention among scholars and academicians whether leadership and management point to the same thing or different processes. The current emphasis is on the process of leadership, which involves an individual exerting influence on a a group of people to accomplish some common objective. Here I outline the most common leadership approaches of the 21st century.

Authentic Leadership – Leaders have to be original and genuine in their leadership

Spiritual leadership – Spiritual leaders are those who employ their godly calling to guide other members with similar beliefs

Servant leadership – Leaders have to exhibit unequaled degrees of caring, and put the followers’ needs at the forefront

Adaptive leadership – Leaders are required to enable their followers adapt to harsh times by proactively confronting issues.

An analysis of the more than 200 definitions of leadership point to at least one thing that all scholars agree on: There is no single definition of leadership and never will be in the near future. The geographical, cultural, social, political and generational differences are to apparently to blame, since these factors shape people’s view of leadership. Leadership up to now remains a multi-faceted complex concept whose definition is far from being singularized (Rost, 1991).



Bass, B. M. (1960). Leadership, Psychology and organizational behaviour. New York: Harper.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.

Copeland, N. (1942). Psychology and the soldier. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publications.

Hemphill, J. K. (1949). Situational factors in leadership. Columbus: Ohio State University, Bureau of Educational Research.

Moore, B. V. (1927). The May conference on leadership. Personnel Journal, 6, 124–128.