The Evolution of Leadership Theory
David A. Van Seters
Stevenson, Kellogg, Ernst & Whinney, Vancouver, British Columbia and
Evolution of Leadership Theory
Richard H.G. Field
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada Leadership is one of the most complex and multifaceted phenomena to which organisational and psychological research has been applied. While the term "leader" was noted as early as the 1300s (The Oxford English Dictionary, 1933) and conceptualised even before biblical times, the term leadership has been in existence only since the late 1700s (Stogdill, 1974). Even then, scientific research on the topic did not begin until the 20th century (Bass, 1981). Since that time, however, there has been intensive research on the subject, addressing leadership from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, Warren Bennis (1959) stated that: Of all the hazy and confounding areas in social psychology, leadership theory undoubtedly contends for the top nomination. And, ironically, probably more has been written and less known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioural sciences (p. 259).
Burns (1978) similarly remarked that "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth." This problem arises not only in understanding the operation of the theory but also in its definition. Stogdill (1974) claimed that "There are almost as many definitions of leadership as those who have attempted to define the concept". Yet still we persist in trying to explain the key question: What makes an effective leader? This question has engendered considerable interest because leadership conjures up powerful and romantic images (Meindl, Ehrlich and Dukerich, 1985; Yukl, 1989). In fact, in these times of rapid change and environmental complexity, leadership has taken on greater importance than ever before. Given the above, it seems very worthwhile to return to the historical foundations of leadership theory and review the progress that has been made. The purpose of this article is to analyse the major areas of leadership research using the taxonomy and nomenclature of evolution, and to acknowledge each major leadership research approach in terms of evolutionary eras and periods. This developmental strategy reveals the path along which leadership theory has evolved. The intent is not to criticise each major theory (see Yukl, 1989, Leadership in Organisations, for an in-depth review), but rather to categorise the major leadership thought processes, providing a broad framework against which to measure existing leadership theories and to prescribe future directions
in leadership theorising. This article will benefit academic researchers who want to improve leadership theories, and practising managers who want to use them. While traditional evolutionary diagrams show each era of development occurring in a chronological sequence, the model of leadership theory evolution shown here does not strictly do so. The reason is that the historical lines of thought on leadership have occurred within a relatively short time-period, and many of them have arisen and subsided simultaneously. Thus, in the current model, there is no recognition of the dates when the various eras occurred, only a recognition of their relative order in the development of leadership theory. Each new era represents a higher stage of development in leadership thought process than the preceding era. The major leadership eras and periods are presented in Table I along with examples of particular theories. While the empirical validity of several theories is discussed, the emphasis here is on the congruent thought processes behind them. The evolutionary tree of leadership theory (see Figure 1) is useful for visualising the historical development of leadership thought. The Leadership Eras The Personality Era The Personality Era included thefirstformal leadership theories, and represented a beginning in the understanding of...
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