11 Dec Historical Changes in Leadership Development

Who is the first person that comes to mind when you think of a leader?


Do you conjure images of a historical figure perusing a personal cause? Perhaps it’s a political character leading a new way of thinking? Or maybe you think of a business executive developing and executing on an exciting new strategy? Whichever way you look at leadership you will probably agree that the person you thought of built an inspiring vision to create something new, and were able to rally the support of followers to aid their cause. These individuals may not have been in positions of power but they had justification and belief combined with an ability to inspire action. One question has dominated the field of leadership research for centuries; how do leaders develop this ability – are they a lucky few who are born with a unique set of skills? Or are they a product of their environment, learning and developing as they grow?


The Great Man Theory of Leadership                                                                                                                                                                                  Early 1800’s

Prevailing theories of leadership until the end of the nineteenth century focused on the notion of ‘The Great Man’, a highly influential individual who was destined to rise from adversity and lead a new way of thinking. Gifted in the ability to inspire and enthuse his followers, the ‘Great Man’ was seen to have divine inspiration, demonstrating heroism, authenticity and courage in his journey to achieve success. This, almost mythical, individual was assumed to have a set of inherent and innate personal characteristics that made them ‘born to lead’ and personal qualities which were unmatched and unrivalled.

research into concepts of leadership. As leadership came under the spotlight of historical and psychological research, flaws in the ‘Great Man Theory’ became apparent. Researchers began to question the credibility behind the claims that individuals are born to be leaders without any recognition of external impact and individuals claimed it was over simplistic to assume leadership was influenced solely through personality.


Early 1900’s                                                                                                                                                                                                      Trait Theories of Leadership

 Whilst the ‘Great Man Theory’ dominated perspectives on leadership development for centuries, advancements in research methods and interest within the area brought challenges to Carlyle’s, less then empirically grounded claims. Whilst still believed to be an innate ability, questions rose over the makeup of a successful leader, what were the elements of these leaders personalities that made them so successful? Shriberg and Shriberg (2011) suggested that trait theories were the first of the modern leadership theories that focused on empirical research.  These theories suggest that leaders are successful due to the makeup of their personality demonstrating high levels of extraversion, self-confidence, intelligence, integrity and courage. Seen as a stable concept, trait theories maintained the view that leadership was a product of an individual’s personality and therefore an innate process, which could not be developed.

Whilst trait theories had developed from the concept of ‘The Great Man Theory’ researchers started to question why individuals who did possess such traits didn’t go on to become successful leaders in their own right. In delving into this further, researchers found that there were actually relatively few traits that distinguished leaders from followers. This raised questions over the developmental pathway of leaders suggesting that there may be something else involved in a leaders journey to success.  These questions were to radically change the way in which leadership development was thought of.


Behavioural Theories of Leadership                                                                                                                                                                                         1950’s

For centuries, leadership had been viewed as an innate process, driven by the view that successful leadership was determined by the makeup of an individual’s personality traits. Successful leaders were seen as those who were born with high levels of extraversion, confidence and integrity with the internal capabilities to inspire, motivate and mobilise others. However, as the field of leadership research expanded challenges to this view became apparent. Why do not all individuals who possess these traits become leaders? Does leadership really exist outside of societal impact? Why do some leaders loose their ability to lead effectively? All critical questions which would have a radical impact on the way in which leadership was viewed.

These challenges led to a move of behaviourism dominating the field of leadership, contrary to the views of the great man and trait theories, behavioural theories suggested that leaders are made and not born, they are essentially a product of their society, as described by Herbert Spencer. Rather than focusing on the internal, mental qualities of the leader driving their success, behavioural theories focus on the actions and behaviour of the leader.  Behavioural theories do not discredit trait theories entirely but rather suggest that certain traits predispose leaders to behave in a certain way, therefore if an individual doesn’t possess these internal drivers, they can still develop the skills and qualities needed to become a successful leader.  According to behavioural approaches individuals can learn to become leaders through teaching and observation, which was a sharp diversion from earlier approaches.

Hailed as a new wave of thinking about leadership, this fresh and innovative concept started to make its transition into the workplace with managers not only being able to identify potential but now develop that potential further to experience organisational success.  Whilst generating a new wave of interest in leadership, scholars started to wonder whether leadership was purely confined to a number of core behaviours, or whether there were other factors that impacted upon leadership performance.


1970’s                                                                                                                                                              Contingency and Situational Theories of Leadership

In a short space of time the ways in which people perceived leadership had changed dramatically. Shifting from a focus of innate ability to one of learning and development, leadership had become not only a specialist area of research but also a profitable industry in which individuals with knowledge and experience of leadership can support in the development of the leadership skills and abilities of other employees. Increasingly, more and more leadership styles were becoming identified, these styles referred to the approach that the leader would take to convey their vision, for example an autocratic, democratic or laissez-faire approach.  Having become a booming industry in it’s own right, leadership development became such a popular concept, that more than 20 different leadership styles were identified. Whilst development opportunities focused on the core behaviours of leaders, the style and approach that the leader adopted began to dominate leadership literature, to understand which style and approach was most effective for followers.

In 1977, Hersey and Blanchard provided unique insights into the views on leadership styles. Whilst previously, scholars had argued for an individual leadership style, Hersey and Blanchard suggested that rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, successful leaders are able to flex and adapt their style depending on the situation and context in which leadership is required.  The pair suggest that the appropriate leadership style is dependent on the competence of the team to deliver a task and the amount of support / direction needed from the leader.  This situational approach to leadership is one, which has stood the test of time and is still highly prominent within leadership development today.


Transformational Theories of Leadership                                                                                                                                                                                           1990’s

Until this point, theories of leadership had focused primarily on the leader taking the active role to achieve a vision or goal. Toward the turn of the century research began to unearth a new style of leadership that would go on to dominate theories of leadership. Suggesting that leaders were not only able to inspire others to engage within their vision but able to support followers in the development of their own leadership potential, this view was growing in popularity. Based on the ability to motivate, improve morale and drive performance, transformational leadership focuses on creating positive change in followers by tapping into the core of individual’s values and supporting them in the development of their own leadership potential. What makes transformational leadership unique is the leaders ability to provide followers with a sense of collective identify and meaning, allowing them to see how their contribution affects the outcome of the vision and goal. Moreover, transformational leaders understand the strengths and weaknesses of followers allowing them to align tasks accordingly to optimise performance.

Today, transformational leadership is still the most popular and dominant theory of leadership. The uncertainty of the economy and increasing challenges present to businesses demonstrate the need for leaders who are able to ‘transform’ followers and groups through motivation, inspiration and empowerment, even in uncertain times.


2010’s                                                                                                                                                                                                         Mindful Theories of Leadership  

In just over a century, theories of leadership have evolved from the traditional school of thought, encouraging the notion of leadership as a facet of an individual’s personality, to one of development, advocating the view that the ability to lead can be developed and passed on. The landscape of leadership theory is continuing to evolve and expand, as our knowledge of concepts grows so too does our ability to educate and develop the knowledge, skills and abilities of our leaders.  Whilst situational and transformational theories of leadership have dominated the field, changes in our external environment have caused a shift in the demands of the modern leader. These changes have given way to the emergence of new theories such as mindful theories.

Led by organisations like Google, Innocent Smoothie and Intel, Mindful theories of leadership place the wellbeing of their staff at the heart of the programme. Generally mindfulness focuses on the practice of self-observation in order to improve the general wellbeing and hygiene of an organisation.  The popularity of mindful leadership programmes have been driven largely by changes in the external environment which has meant that staff are now working longer and more excessive hours than ever before. This can have a damaging effect on organisation performance, motivation and productivity. The implementation of mindfulness programmes can support organisations in reducing these negative behaviours that ultimately put the survival of organisations at risk.



Over the course of the last century, leadership development has moved from being mysterious concept to an objective approach to supporting organisations in driving their performance and experiencing growth. As our knowledge of leadership development has improved, so too have our methods for developing the skills deemed necessary for leaders to experience success. Whilst theories of leadership continue to change, so too do our methods and interventions to support leadership development. In a world where knowledge is expanding at such a rapid rate and innovation is prominent across industries, organisations are consistently having to deal with changes and challenges within their external environment, leadership development has become an urgent requirement for many organisations across the United Kingdom.


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The Talent Link are a fully approved centre for the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and focus on leadership development at all organisational levels. To learn how we can design and deliver bespoke training programmes for your top talent, contact us on 0203 693 7380 or email

  • Fiona Malkin
    Posted at 14:40h, 15 January Reply

    Interesting reading! As a small business owner for over thirty years I can identify with many things you say. At Connection Express Parcels Ltd. we have always tried to find a comfortable balance between work and personal lives, concern for the wellbeing of couriers and directors alike has been an important focus in our company. We are able to offer employment which is flexible enough to cope with any changing priorities our workforce might have to contend with. A flexible working framework is supportive to our employees which in turn benefits our customers by insuring a stable and reliable relationship; this is evident in the long working relations we enjoy with our couriers. Over the years we have found that the ‘”practice of self-observation in order to improve the general wellbeing and hygiene of an organisation.” has been a valuable one. By recognising personality traits we are able to place our couriers in situations where they are confident and comfortable thus encouraging a happy work environment..

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