Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Evolution of Western Leadership theories

In the West, the study of leadership has a long and respectable history. Despite this, leadership only became a topic of formal analysis by scholars and researchers in the early 1930s. According to Gary Yukl (2006), leadership is defined as the method of manipulating others to understand and accept what is to be done and how, as well as the method of facilitating individual and collective attempts to achieve the shared objectives. Leadership is defined as the procedure of influencing an individual or a group of individuals to work for the achievement of the common goal (Peter & Northouse, 2007). These definitions propose quite a few factors affecting the phenomenon of leadership such as the fact that leadership involves manipulating others, it occurs within the framework of a group, it engages goal accomplishment and sharing of goals between the leaders and their followers (Lumpe, et al., 2012; Luqman, et al., 2012).


Early leadership studies were preoccupied with power and influence and these can be traced back to Plato, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli. During this early stage, the great man theory received popularity. Various writings on Roman emperors and charismatic leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, M.K. Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among others supported this belief. Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton, the advocators of the great man theory concluded that great leaders were born with innate qualities. In essence they believed that great leaders were born and not made (Dwyer, 1993; Flint, 2007; Southworth, 2004; Abbas, 2006; Sian, et al., 2012). These works helped to promote the trait-based perspective which became famous in the 1940s and the 1950s. Trait theories claim that individuals are only able to lead if they possess innate qualities.

Northouse (2007) identifies five traits associated with effective leadership; intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability. Furthermore, he adds that these traits separate leaders from followers. However, subsequent studies were unable to identify universal traits for leadership success. For example, Ralph Stogdill in 1984 reviewed over 120 trait studies but was unable to find an understandable pattern (Wren, 1995). Therefore, he proposed instead to integrate personal and social characteristics. In the interest of studying and enhancing leadership, the traits perspective continued, but various theoretical adaptations emerged namely; (behavioural (1950s-1960s), situational (1960s-1970s) and in the 1980s, transactional, transformational). Behavioural theories, as implied in the name concentrates on the activities of leaders, and not on their distinguishing traits. Behavioural school scholars, especially in Harvard, Ohio and Michigan, carried out research through field studies and in laboratory settings to observe and understand the behaviour of leaders (Lumpe, et al., 2012; Luqman, et al., 2012).

Leadership behaviours as identified by House and Mitchell are directive, supportive, participative and achievement oriented; these are often categorized as leadership styles (Werbner, 2009; Shah, 2006; Hewer, 2001; Southworth, 2004; Poynting & Mason, 2007).

From this viewpoint, scholars identified three behaviours as related to leadership effectiveness; person-oriented, task-oriented and individual prominence. However, no pattern of leader behaviour was found to be associated with leader effectiveness (Lumpe et al., 2012; Luqman, et al., 2012).

This lead to the rise of the situational approach in the 1970’s which emphasised the need to understand the contextual factors influencing leadership processes. One such theory that helps to understand different characteristics of leadership is Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership. Studies have found that leaders like Gandhi, Lincoln and Churchill had some charismatic characteristics that made them different from other people (Pierce & Newstrom, 2011).

Fiedler says that these qualities and traits are innate, but the role of a leader also depends on the situation framework. Fiedler’s theory has two major components; one is trait and the other one is situation framework (Bolden, 2006, p. 104). Scholars of this approach such as Fielder advocate persuasively that there is no one single best way to lead. They claim that a style which is successful in one situation may be ineffective in another. In essence, different kinds of leadership are required for different situations (Ogunyinka & Adedoyin, 2013; Bakker & Avest, 2010; Kroissenbrunner, 2003; Gilbert, 2004; Elsegeiny, 2005; Dadabhay, 2011; Smith, 2011).

Therefore, leaders are required to adjust their style according to their followers’ level of religious, personal and psychological maturity. If leaders are to shape events, they must accept and acknowledge the situation and the needs of their employees (Northouse, 2007). Later it was discovered that this theory did not take into account the substantial differences in group performance (Avolio, et al., 2009).

With this gap, the theories of transformational/transactional leadership were born in the 1980’s and remain today as a contemporary leadership theory. Transformational/transactional leadership takes into consideration factors that assist a leader in transforming the behaviour of followers. This theory emerged from the notions that some of the earlier leadership theories introduced during the period of mid-seventies were lacking the dimensions of ethics and morals thereby coveting the need of exchange theory which maintains that followers play a crucial role in the definition and context of leadership (Rast et al. 2012; Hoyt, 2013 and Ray (2012). Transformational theories address how leaders motivate followers to pursue goals beyond their immediate self interest. The transformational leader “shapes and shares a vision which provides direction, focus, meaning and inspiration to the work of others” (Blunt, 1991).

Transformational leaders promote desirable attitudes, values and beliefs which affect the culture. They attach considerable importance to such values as relative equality of power between leaders and followers, high tolerance of ambiguity, high levels of trust and openness and a desire to share feelings and emotions. In addition, they highlight values such as trust, teamwork, rationality, delegation and productivity among others.

Transactional leaders however, as explained by Bolden (2006) work towards achieving organisational goals through the use of valuable rewards to motivate and focus on routine performance (the standards of which they agree upon with their subordinates). In contrast to transactional leadership, transformational leaders seek to change their organisation’s approach and culture so that it fits in better with the current market environment. Transformational leaders are change agents who inspire and direct employees to broaden and elevate their interests and awareness and accept the purposes and mission of the group.

These leaders stir employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group (Northouse, 2007:200). In this context, it is also imperative to state that the fact that there is a difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership does not mean that there is no relation between the two models. In fact, the latter was developed on the foundations of the former. The common element of the two models is that they are both centred on the objective of achieving the mission or some purpose.

Aside from transformational/transactional theories, various contemporary approaches to leadership have been introduced by researchers that prescribe leadership from different perspectives.

Servant leadership is one contemporary theory that has revolutionized the leadership literature with different views and notions considering the leadership in the particular context, location, problem and nature of organisation (Avolio, et al., 2009). The concept of servant leadership was first introduced by Robert Greenleaf in year 1977. According to Greenleaf, servant leadership perspective entails that a leader should be a servant in the sense that he or she must be driven to serve before leading others and must always be determined to attain the highest priority of needs he or she is serving (Spears, 1996).

Servant leadership perspective hence distinguishes the primary motive of leadership from the traditional leader perspective that is based on theory in which a leader believes in leading others first in order to achieve the organisational goals (Foti & Hauenstein, 2007; Zaccaro, et al., 2008; Gershenoff & Foti, 2003; Mumford et al., 2000; Smith & Foti, 1998). On the contrary, servant leadership perspective is geared towards serving others first to become all that they are capable of becoming and achieving, and then focusing on achieving organisational goals (Spears, 1996; Moddasir & Singh, 2008).

Dr Yusuf Abdul-Jobbar

[Extract taken from PhD Interim Report by Dr. Yusuf Abdul-Jobbar]