Leadership theories through the ages

Leadership, whether supportive or dictatorial, has existed ever since humans first began to interact. However, the need for leadership, combined with an increased focus on leadership, has developed significantly in tandem with rapid technological, cultural and demographic progress. Alongside this, changes in communication have forced organisations, leaders and followers always to be aware of and to improve their interaction in order to attain common goals. The values and intentions behind leadership behaviour are the main reasons for constantly evolving leadership theories and the models and tools related to this.
This article is intended to illustrate how time, global and/or private interests, events and human relationships have influenced the ongoing evolution of leadership theories and leadership models. These typically focus either on the leader, the task, the environment, the follower(s) or the team members in a rather complex combination of post-modern systemic and relational leadership facets.
As an abstract term, leadership is not used exclusively in the context of paid work. However, the evolution of the working environment has dominated the way in which relations between decision-makers and their followers, volunteers, professionals and even family hierarchies have been shaped.
In the pre-industrial era, leadership centred around the leader and related values such as honour, prestige and authority: qualities which were not open to debate. Good followers were to be obedient and the focus was primarily on WHAT people worked on, often to the extent that they were named after their profession: Smith, Miller, etc. The goal during this period was the survival and success of mankind.

Focus on task and production

Once the industrial era had begun, workers started to create more of a distinction between work and leisure time, dividing their duties from their interests. This meant that motivation became an important concern for leaders. World War I and the recession in the late 1920s, combined with the technological development of automatisation, signalled the beginning of a new era in which an awareness about leadership was a source of considerable interest. Ford introduced the assembly belt and the piece rate for motivating employees in order to speed up the production of automobiles, without giving much thought to the social and physical repercussions. Leadership values were displayed by productivity, quantity, speed and economy. Goals were related to growth and economic prosperity. The main theories at this period focused on HOW people work.
During World War II the need for factory employees drew more women into paid work. Once the war had ended, many new innovations made the world focus even more on improving productivity in factories, offices and even between people. Mercantile jobs increased with supermarkets, global brands and as marketing increasingly influenced the public opinion.

Focus on the person

The start of the modern leadership era focused on interpersonal dynamics and psychology, although the focus was still on the perspective of the leader or the organisation rather than on the influence on the follower. The key psychological theories were the X and Y humanity perspective , Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s Motivational Theory, all of which primarily focus on WHY people work. The goals of many organisations still centred around growth and wealth, but increasingly there was a willingness for the global distribution of ideas and the improvement of the quality of life. Goals were generally related to the quality of products, services and life in general.
As technological innovation continues to increase and IT solutions and robots take over many demanding jobs, the focus is now shifting to an awareness of continually improving efficiency, whilst at the same time minimising the consumption of global natural resources and the breakdown of human physical and mental resources. Fewer people work in production and more and more work in the services or care sector. The care sector, as part of the ‘health industry’, brings the requirement for a more motivational and appreciative way of leading people. Communication has become essential for leadership and goals are now related to diversity, inclusion and mutual understanding.

Global communication

The internet speed up global communication and opened the door for the management of people and production from a distance. Communication binds people and production in a living, 24/7 global network. Leading means being aware that one individual cannot handle everything alone, even when multitasking. Leaders must show faith in their team members and need to communicate in order to motivate and to optimise productivity and efficiency. The oil crisis in the 1970s and the recession at the start of this century forced organisations to optimise and analyse traditional ways of working. This has led to an explosion in models and theories about how to make the world work that focus on tasks, processes, people and even the relations between the stakeholders in a task. Since a leader does not manage all duties, shared leadership or leadership teams that consist of people with complementary skills and delegated responsibilities have become increasingly common. An awareness of the similarities and differences in competences and needs is now essential. The knowledge and overview of overlapping systems within a working community has become a must for those involved. Leadership is now ‘(leader)team-ship’, as individual and organisational goals have reached a global scale.


Our world today is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Economic turmoil, environmental disasters, conflict and the resulting mass migration are just some of the issues which lead to continuous change. The concept of systemic thinking highlights the complexity that people are living in.
Many leadership models are developed on the basis of research about how people can carry out tasks healthily and efficiently. Theories focus on self leadership; distant/remote leadership; trust and faith; delegation; motivation; and resonant leadership. The focus has shifted from the perspective of a single leader to the interaction between those involved in a given task in a wider context as an organisation. This means that each stakeholder is fully responsible for his or her share of the task, for the group and/or for the whole organisation.
Stress management, mindfulness, coaching and meditation are frequently mentioned as ways to handle complexity, uncertainty and imperfections in reality. Theorists and organisational developers include these trends and are thinking of new theories and methods to support those facing the challenges of today in order to be ready for the world of tomorrow. ‘Resonant Leadership’ by Daniel Goleman and ‘Theory U’ by C. Otto Scharmer have dominated the worlds of both change management and personal development. In his book ‘Reinventing Organisations’, Frédéric Laloux gives examples of non-hierarchical organisations around the globe where leadership is a shared responsibility.
All of these theories value quality relations between the leaders themselves, those around them, and the world in which they live. They see individuals as competent and responsible in a local and a global context, both for today and tomorrow. Followers and leadership roles have become interchangeable, as described in the Catalyst training manual: ‘Followers are also leaders. The first follower turns a lone nut into a leader! Followers are leaders in their own right, and in fact, inclusive leaders make space for others to lead, by following them.’ This means that leaders encourage followers to seek their own leadership potential and are willing to create a culture of shared responsibility where everyone feels personally involved in what is at stake. This happens within an atmosphere of trust where people are valued for who they are and are able to express themselves. These theories require self-leadership, which means that self-awareness becomes a key tool, as well as a situation and state of mind for both the leader and the follower.
When looking back through history, the development of leadership can be seen as a spiral in which previous forms are repeatedly connected to modern contexts, building new experiences on top of older theories. This evolution of leadership centres around the elements WHAT, WHY and HOW; examining how people act, re-act and inter-act.
Inclusive leadership adds a further dimension to these concepts of leadership. It continues the trajectory of contemporary trends in leadership development by putting the focus directly on diverse groups and individuals.