The History of Leadership

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss our understanding of leadership from the historical perspective

Leadership—it’s the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of goals. There are some common themes among definitions of leadership that we understand without really even thinking about it:

  • Leadership is a group phenomenon. This concept is pretty easy. Without followers, there can be no leader.
  • Leaders use influence. Leaders need to guide people to a goal, so they need to influence and persuade.
  • Leadership is goal directed. Without a goal to achieve, no leadership is needed.
  • Leadership assumes hierarchy. We assume that a leader is at the top of the hierarchy and that his or her followers are aligned underneath.

A leader may be considered a leader because of a formal relationship, provided by the possession of managerial rank in an organization. Or a leader can be informal, someone who steps up and provides that guidance from within a group of people, not necessarily the person who has been given decision making authority. (As we’ll discuss later in this module, not every leader is a manager and not every manager is a leader.)

Those are some fairly basic concepts about leaders and leadership. How did we arrive at what we understand about leadership today? Historically speaking, it’s been quite a ride. Let’s take a trip way back and take a look at how far we’ve come. (Note: this text will focus on the history of European and North American history, since we’re addressing a largely US-based audience. There is of course, a much broader and diverse history of leaders across the world not mentioned here.)

Leadership—Historically Speaking

A tapestry depicting King Arthur sitting on a throne, holding a banner.There are a few different varieties of King Arthur’s story, one of the most prominent folklore stories from England. Most versions tell either of how Arthur became king when the Lady of the Lake gave him a sword called Excalibur, or of how he was the only one capable of pulling the sword from a stone. Either way, he was the chosen one, he possessed a certain something, and, by divine right, he became the king of Britain.

There’d be very few leaders among us today if we relied on a pulling-sword-from-stone selection process. Or, more likely, we’d watch the process unfold and then say, “Hey, nice trick, but why should I listen to you?” Concepts in leadership have changed since the sixth century.

Surely, anyone who knew the legend of King Arthur understood that it helped illustrate the concept that those who led were born and not made. Early concepts of monarchy included the element that king was a divine choice and was bound to no earthly rules. The right to rule was derived directly from the will of God. Those that were not kings were instead heroes, possessors of God-given skills that helped them achieve victory in battle. Some of these heroes were mythological, like Odysseus, descendant of the gods and hero of the Trojan War, and others, like Alexander the Great and Hannibal Barca, earned their distinction in battles won against nearly insurmountable odds, immortalized in stories retold over generations.

Plato, Plutarch, Lao-Tzu and even Machiavelli had an impact on how these rulers and heroes were defined in their instruction and shared opinions of what it meant to be a leader. Of course, they didn’t use the word “leader.” The word “leader” as we use it today didn’t come into the English language until the 19th century.

Still, thanks to them, the “leader as hero” concept had been a clear definition for hundreds of years. In 1840, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle stated that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The Great Man Theory took hold—the idea that history can be explained by the impact of great men and the decisions they made. These great men were identified by their charisma, intelligence, and wisdom. Carlyle suggested that these great men shaped history through these personal attributes and, yes, divine inspiration, too. (And since he lived in Scotland in the 1840s, there was no mention of women.)

In Carlyle’s book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in Society (Carlyle, 1840), the author dove into the lives of several men he deemed “heroes,” like Muhammed, Richard Wagner, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, and Napoleon. He believed that history “turned” on the decisions of these men, and encouraged others to study these heroes as a way of discovering one’s own true nature.

Studies were conducted on subjects who were already leaders, often members of aristocracy that had inherited their positions. Very few people with lower status had the opportunity to lead, and this contributed to the idea that these leadership qualities were something one was born with.

This Great Man approach was pretty fashionable in the 19th century, particularly with history professors who deferred to biographies of great men to teach their subject, rather than social histories. After all, it seems as if, when we faced some of our most difficult moments in history, a man emerged to lead us successfully through it. The existence of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and others like them only seemed to prove the theory.

Practice Question

The Great Man Theory was a predecessor of the Early Trait Theory stage of leadership research. In the United States, we were well into the experience of the Industrial Revolution, and it was clear that leaders weren’t just heroes and rulers. At the turn of the twentieth century, we were starting to understand the nuances of management and what it meant to be more strategic in leading. Could personality traits predict success in leadership?


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More