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.