The Evolution of Leadership Approaches in the 20th Century


 Trait ("Great Man") Approaches.  Trait approaches and theories place all emphasis on inborn traits of individual leaders ñ everything depends on strong individuals. They grew out of ancient mythological notions that leaders are special people who are born with special traits. It was also bolstered by nineteenth-century notions of Social Darwinism, which proposed that leaders emerge through struggle in a "survival-of-the-fittest" context and that strong people and cultures have a natural right to dominate apparently weaker people and cultures. The early research was done by psychologists recruited by the military to develop leadership programs during World War I, which aggravated the male bias already built in to the approach. Trait approaches fail because they do not take into account any situational factors and because they historically focused narrowly on traditional masculine and militaristic behaviors. Finally, they do not offer anything we can use to teach or develop leadership skills and habits, since they propose that all leadership traits are built into special people at birth. Their only use is to identify would-be leaders and put them into leadership roles.

 Fate Approaches.  These approaches also grew out of ancient philosophies which stressed large-scale impersonal causation. They take a stance exactly opposite to Trait or Great-Man approaches in that they believe that human free will is an illusion and that nothing individual people do really matters. Everything is caused by fate, chance, necessity, or divine providence. The ancient Greek Fatalists and Stoics elaborated this philosophy, but it also shows up throughout history in Protestant beliefs in Predestination (associated with the American Puritans) and with Marxism, which proposed that history was just a series of economic phases caused by struggles between those who held power and those who wanted it. The problems with Fate approaches are twofold: first, they are easy to debunk because it is easy to demonstrate that individual people do make a difference in all sorts of ways; and second, belief in free will or the absence of free will becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which effects one's attitude about everything. If one believes that one has free will and acts on that belief, then for all intents and purposes one does have free will. If one believes that some cosmic impersonal force controls everything, then the motivation to act can easily be depressed. Ironically, one of the best examples to disprove Fate approaches is the case of Vladimir Lenin, whose personal influence in the Russian Revolution was far-reaching even though Lenin himself believed that he was simply acting as a puppet of larger historical forces.


Role Approaches.  These approaches were developed in response to the failures of the first two. They focus on actual behavior in leadership roles. A role may be thought of as a "bundle of expectations" held by followers and others who respond to leaders. We all play roles all the time; to some extent, appropriate healthy behavior implies a capacity to recognize the appropriate role and behave accordingly in any situation. Leadership is a particular role within a group, organization, or community; leadership roles always involve greater rewards and greater responsibilities than other group member roles. Leader roles can also be grouped into two types: task roles (which involve the completion of tasks necessary to group goal achievement) and relationship roles (which involve the emotional tone or morale of the group as it attempt to achieve goals and complete tasks). Task roles include giving orders, dispensing rewards and punishments, and organizing people and resources. Relationship roles include asking for input and feedback, listening to group members' complaints, and breaking tensions through humor. The trick to effective leadership often requires one to understand when the group needs more task focus and when it needs attention to relationships. Individuals tend to be a little better at one of these roles than the other, so it is quite difficult to be good at both task roles and relationship roles, especially since we can not focus on both at the same time. Role approaches are very helpful because they help us understand what leaders actually do, and they help us understand how different situations require different kinds of behaviors or roles.

 Contingency Approaches. Contingencies are factors or variables on which other phenomena depend. The failure of Trait and Fate approaches led social scientists and other scholars to seek all the factors that might impinge on leadership behavior. Their work in the middle of the twentieth century led to the identification of six major contingencies which influence the need for particular kinds of leadership in different situations.

Individual leader characteristics. This one bears a resemblance to the old Trait approaches, but it looks for underlying developmental explanations of deep-rooted values and character qualities rather than simple personality traits. Thus it requires a thorough study of an individual leader's whole life story from childhood on.

Follower characteristics. The characteristics of followers obviously tell a lot about the leaders they will seek. Leaders in fact emerge from populations of followers; leaders and follower tend to share a pool of common values and shared experiences which give rise to "social character." Social character describes whole coherent populations, of which leaders and followers are members, such as "Ripon College students," suffragettes, civil-rights activists in the 1960s, and Nazis under Adolf Hitler. Follower characteristics can also be divided into two categories: the small group of individuals close to the main leader (e.g. the Oval Office staff in the White House, Jesus' disciples) and the large mass of followers whose names don't make the history books. Disciples and inner-circle followers may be the objects of biographical study; the large mass of followers can only be studied through sociological and other social-science methods.

Group goals and tasks. Every group is defined by its goals and tasks: a football team plays football and attempt to beat other football teams; a political party attempts to solve political problems and prevail over other parties. The kind of tasks and goals involved largely determines the kind of leadership needed. The trick for leaders is to clarify goals and tasks, and to break long-term goals into bite-size objectives and clear action steps.

Available resources.  Much depends upon the resources available to solve problems and achieve goals. The primary resource of any group is its people. Other resources include money, knowledge, beliefs, habits, and values. Intangible resources are often the most critical but the most difficult to recognize. Martin Luther King, for example drew on the resource of shared beliefs about political, economic, and social freedom and equality (as stated in the major political documents of U.S. history) to overcome the racism and discrimination of his time.

Group size and structure.  The pivotal factor here lies in the difference between a primary group or team, which is small enough for all members to interact directly face to face, and a large formal organization, in which we face too many people to interact with all at once. People are wired to behave effectively in small family-size groups. Leaders, however, are often called upon to work with larger groups of people. The way an organization is structured can make a big difference to the effectiveness of its leaders. Most traditional organizations are structured in hierarchies of power, with the most powerful at the top and a much larger group of relatively powerless people at the bottom. At the extreme, this form of organization is totalitarian, which means that the organization attempts to control all aspects of its members' lives. The most tangible historical examples of totalitarian organization were in Hitler's Nazi state and in Stalin's Marxist state. At the other end of the scale is the network form of organization, in which all members are roughly equal in power and in which information and power both flow in all directions.

Environmental pressures.  Everything happens in an environment or a context. Everything happens at some time in some place. Knowledge of the history and the surrounding context of events always helps us understand those events better. To understand the Nazi phenomenon in Germany during the 1920s through the end of World War II, we need to understand the history of Europe in the previous century. To understand the American civil-rights movement of the 1960s, we need to understand American race relations over the previous century. To simplify, the pressures of the environment on the leadership event in question can be positive and supportive, negative and challenging, or neutral. This means the difference between boom times and depression for a business leader, between peace and war for a political leader, between growing or shrinking student populations for a college president.