A Brief History of Leadership Theory

Modernity gave us ability to study and publish anything. Theories of all sorts of things started developing. The internet is the natural progression of this, sometimes with less study and more publishing.

Leadership study started in the middle of the 19th century. Here are six of the major moves in this field of study.

1. The Great Man Theory comes from the middle of the 1800s. This theory says that leaders are born with the traits, qualities and abilities of being a leader. Leaders are not made. You either are or you aren’t from birth.


2. Trait Theory came a century later, during the age of psychology. It says that whether people are born or trained to be leaders, specific traits will allow them to excel and succeed in leadership. These researchers focused on the physical, mental and social/relational characteristics that good leaders have. This can be an entertaining theory because different people proposed some strange traits that contribute to being a good leader; like wearing the same outfit everyday may make you successful. They all seem to agree that being a little taller and a little more intelligent will help.


3. Behavioral Theory followed in the 1940s — 50s. This is a reaction to Trait Theory that saw leadership as the behavior of the leader leading to success and not just mental or physical traits. This is the total opposite of the Great Man Theory. It argues that anyone can learn and preform successful leadership behaviors. Leaders are made, not born.


4. Contingency Theory evolved out of Behavioral Theory in the 1960s. It says a leader will apply the right behaviors in the right situations. There is not one style, or set of behaviors, that will work in every situation or with every group. Like Behavioral Theory it says anyone can learn the different styles, but like Trait Theory it says a good leader will know which to use, where and when.


5. Transactional Leadership Theory came in the 1970s. Contingency Theory opened the door to considering how to best motivate the people being led. Transactional Theory says a leader must offer, with the right rewards or punishment, to motivate people to follow them.


6. Transformational Leadership Theory developed at the same time as transactional, and for the same reasons related to Contingency Theory, but took a totally different direction. Transformational Theory says that it is the leader’s role to inspire others to follow. This happens through relationships and the leader’s personality. A good leader gives their followers an identity of belonging.

Both Transactional and Transformational Theories grew out of the Contingency Theory. Transactional Theory seems to favor the behavioral focus on doing what needs to be done to succeed. Transformational favors the Trait Theory’s focus on being the person who can inspire success.

So which one is best/right?

H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Maybe they all are almost right.

The $25,000 Plan

In the early 20th Century, Bethlehem Steel was the second largest steel producer in the United States and the world’s largest shipbuilder. Charles M. Schwab bought the company at the turn of the century and led it into unprecedented growth. By the 1910s the corporation was expanding rapidly, acquiring many other, smaller companies.

Schwab knew that rapid growth can kill efficiency, so to combat this problem he hired a consultant named Ivy Lee in 1918 to give advice on how Bethlehem Steel could continue to run smoothly. Lee came and observed the organization and looked through the data, then came back to Schwab asked to be given 15 minutes with each executive in the company.

Lee spent those 15 minutes explaining a simple organizational method to each executive. He told them to spend a little time at the end of each workday to write down the six most important things they wanted to get done the next day. He told them to put them in order, starting with the most important. As soon as they got to work the next day, they would be ready to start with that first thing and were to work on it until it was finished and then move on to the next until it was finished. If they didn’t finish all six things in the day, whatever was left would get bumped to the next day’s list. He told them to do this every day.

Schwab asked how much this sole and simple advice for Bethlehem Steel would cost. Lee told him to wait and see how it worked for three months and then pay him whatever he thought it was worth. Three months later Schwab called Ivy Lee back to his office and wrote him a $25,000 check. That is over $450,000 today for one simple plan that boosted the company’s productivity and efficiently more than anything else ever had. The Ivy Lee plan was taught to all managers and workers in the company.

It was just a to-do list. It worked.

This life and leadership strategy teaches us that making and executing a plan is the key to living and being effective. We all know it’s true, but we still don’t always take the time to do it, or we don’t stick with it.

Sometimes we don’t stick with it because the system we try to use gets more complex than we care to maintain. There are phone and computer apps that help us do this. Personally, I haven’t found them effective. I bullet journal instead, pen and paper to-do lists for each day of the week. The best method of planning out what you need to get done is the method that works and one you will stick with.

I plan out my work, family, social responsibilities every week. I usually find more time in every day than I need, because so much of it is used well. It has been priceless in my life.

In the early 20th Century, Bethlehem Steel was the second largest steel producer in the United States and the world’s largest shipbuilder. Charles M. Schwab bought the company at the turn of the century and led it into unprecedented growth. By the 1910s the corporation was expanding rapidly, acquiring many other, smaller companies.

Schwab knew that rapid growth can kill efficiency, so to combat this problem he hired a consultant named Ivy Lee in 1918 to give advice on how Bethlehem Steel could continue to run smoothly. Lee came and observed the organization and looked through the data, then came back to Schwab and asked to be given 15 minutes with each executive in the company.

Lee spent those 15 minutes explaining a simple organizational method to each executive. He told them to spend a little time at the end of each workday to write down the six most important things they wanted to get done the next day. He told them to put them in order, starting with the most important. As soon as they got to work the next day, they would be ready to start with that first thing and were to work on it until it was finished and then move on to the next until it was finished. If they didn’t finish all six things in the day, whatever was left would get bumped to the next day’s list. He told them to do this every day.

Schwab asked how much this sole and simple advice for Bethlehem Steel would cost. Lee told him to wait and see how it worked for three months and then pay him whatever he thought it was worth. Three months later Schwab called Ivy Lee back to his office and wrote him a $25,000 check. That is over $450,000 today for one simple plan that boosted the company’s productivity and efficiency more than anything else ever had. The Ivy Lee plan was taught to all managers and workers in the company.

It was just a to-do list. It worked.

This life and leadership strategy teaches us that making and executing a plan is the key to living and being effective. We all know it’s true, but we still don’t always take the time to do it, or we don’t stick with it.

Sometimes we don’t stick with it because the system we try to use gets more complex than we care to maintain. There are phone and computer apps that help us do this. Personally, I haven’t found them effective. I bullet journal instead, pen and paper to-do lists for each day of the week. The best method of planning out what you need to get done is the method that works and one you will stick with.

I plan out my work, family, social responsibilities every week. I usually find more time in every day than I need, because so much of it is used well. It has been priceless in my life.

Two Shoe Salesmen

Two shoe salesmen from London were sent to Africa in the 1800s. They both got off the ship and ventured out into the city, then the surrounding towns, and out into the villages. A few days later they went to the telegraph office.

The first salesman sent a message to his company in London, “No one wears shoes here. Send fare for my return. I’m coming home.”

The second salesman messages his company, “No one wears shoes here. Send 10,000 pairs immediately.”

Two men from the same place, with the same job, see the same people and come to two totally different conclusions. The first sees problems, the second sees opportunities. One sees a no-win situation and the other sees nothing but potential. One sees a road block and the other sees a wide-open playing field.

Perspective is the only difference in these two men, and perspective is the only thing that matters in this situation.

The life and leadership strategy of the Two Shoe Salesmen tells us to pay attention to our perspective. See what could be before you pack it in and move on.

In our work and in leading others it becomes easy to look for the path of least resistance. We consider what others have done and are doing, when we should be considering what could be done. Our perspective too often becomes stifled by imaginary boundaries of convenience and convention. But just because our coworkers and competition are bare-foot doesn’t mean we have to be.

Our families and relationships can suffer the same way. People accept and expect life to get busy, calendars to fill up, kids to come along, work to ask more, and intimacy, quality time, joy and values to diminish. But just because our neighbors don’t wear the shoes of healthy, intentional and live-giving family life doesn’t mean we can’t.

Our work places, homes, and communities are not unchangeable or immovable. Our role in the story of our lives has not been written for us. To think it has is to live a life lacking perspective of reality.

A good shoe salesman knows their job is to sell shoes, so they make the decisions and take the actions necessary to do it.

A good leader and co-worker should know their job is to succeed with the team they are on and will make the decisions and take the actions necessary to do it.

A good spouse and parent should know their job is to instill a sense of love, peace, confidence, values and purpose into their family and will make the decisions and take the actions necessary to do it.

It all begins with perspective. Choose to see what could be, what should be, and what will be as you decided to make it so. See the potential in your work, family, spouse, children and community and be the one who makes it happen.