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Thinking about leadership has been a popular pastime for many centuries. This paper traces the development of leadership thought from the nineteenth century to the present day in two parts. The first section spans the period 1840 to 1980, while the second looks at contemporary thinking from approximately 1980 to the present.

The modern study of leadership is generally accepted as beginning around 1840 with Thomas Carlyle's lecture series and subsequent publication of On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History. Carlyle's leaders were born, not made, and the ‘great man’ theory of leadership was born. Francis Galton extended Carlyle's work, investigating the hereditary background of leaders and assessing the probability of ‘great’ men having ‘great’ relatives. Challenged as unscientific, great man theory evolved into trait theory, which sought to identify those characteristics and attributes which leaders were either born with, or developed.

With the number of studies multiplying and traits including height and birth order being posited as indicators of leadership ability, R M Stogdill's 1948 critique demonstrated the need to consider factors external to the leader in the formulation of leadership theories. In recognition of this, situational leadership and contingency theories developed through the mid-twentieth century, offering leaders advice on how best to adapt either their own leadership approach or other situational variables respectively, to achieve optimal outcomes.

Approaching leadership through the study of political leaders, in 1978 James MacGregor Burns described two contrasting two modes of leadership – transactional and transformational. At its most simple transactional leadership is the promise of reward for work, while transformational leaders approach their work from a more altruistic perspective, seeking to truly engage their followers and motivate them to higher levels of performance.

Leadership thought has evolved in a less linear manner over the past thirty or so years. Rather than seeking ‘one true theory’ of leadership, work has explored the idea of leadership from different perspectives. These perspectives have included the person-centred idea of authentic leadership as well as the types of leadership approaches needed to work successfully with complexity and ambiguity, and within systems.

Proponents of ‘adaptive leadership’ approach leadership as a practice rather than a hierarchical position, while researchers into complexity leadership explore the operation of complex adaptive systems within bureaucratic organisations. The term ‘neuroleadership’ has been coined to describe the application of the science of neurology to the practice of leadership. These recent perspectives inform the APS Leadership Development Strategy (2011) and resulting talent and leadership development activities.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018