“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher and historian, in 1841.
As well as highlighting the exclusion of women from nineteenth-century leadership models, Carlyle’s words neatly summarise one of man’s earliest theories about great leaders: that they alone shape history. Carlyle popularised this ‘great man theory’ – a top–down narrative which held that intrinsic traits like charisma, intelligence and trustworthiness were key qualities for leadership success.
In this context, ‘charisma’ is particularly significant. The word comes from the Greek for ‘gift of grace’, suggesting something divinely bestowed and not, therefore, possible to acquire through learning.
Society and the case for democracy
Of course, the great man theory had its critics. As early as 1860, Herbert Spencer argued that great men are, in fact, products of their societies. It’s a notion that has remained influential to this day.
As modern nation states emerged in the 19th century, so too did the concept of national identity. Many European monarchs stopped ruling as autocrats, finding it was more effective to lead as patriots. Historian Tim Blanning from the University of Cambridge explains that, once people identified with nations, effective monarchs were those who could embody a shared national identity. And, as he points out, ‘monarchs such as Louis XVI of France who misunderstood or ignored this shift literally lost their heads’.
Building on the great man theory, trait theories of leadership boomed in the 1930s and 1940s. They looked for personality, social, physical or intellectual traits that differentiate leaders from non-leaders.
In the 1940s and 1950s, behavioural theories took hold. Focusing on what leaders do, rather than what they are, they are often seen as having paved the way for leadership training programmes.
Groups and motivation: a new leadership psychology
In recent years, theorists have suggested that thinking solely in terms of the characteristics of individual leaders is not only flawed, but also jeopardises organisational effectiveness.
Fast-forward to 2010 and The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power focuses on the leader–follower relationship. The authors explain that the importance of speaking for and identifying with the group is at the heart of a new understanding of leadership, which they define as ‘not simply about getting people to do things’ but ‘getting them to want to do things’.
The importance of learning
Thomas Carlyle believed unequivocally that leaders are born and not made. But many theorists since have written convincingly about the ways in which leadership can be taught.
In The Leadership Challenge, first published in the late 1980s, Kouzes and Posner write that ‘leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices’. They say that, given the opportunity for feedback and practice, ‘those with the desire and persistence to lead—to make a difference—can substantially improve their abilities to do so’.
Known as ‘the father of leadership’, Warren Bennis was equally adamant that leadership could be learned. He was one of the first to suggest that growth and development was based in self-awareness, and that leadership success demanded a willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for learning.
Self-awareness and the leaders of the future
Bennis described leadership as ‘the process of continual self-discovery’ and ‘a process of lifelong learning’. It’s a view endorsed by Lisa Hughes, currently completing a Masters in Creativity, Innovation and Leadership at City University.
With 25 years’ experience in the NHS, both as a practitioner and in management and advisory roles, Hughes is now finalising her thesis, which considers how we can best prepare and train aspiring NHS executive directors to improve the organisational climate of the health service.
“I certainly don’t think good leadership is a top–down process,” she says. “It’s important for a leader to be part of the group, and to be self-aware enough to challenge their own world view. Behaviours are important, and they should be driven by self-awareness as well as your values.”
“For me,” Hughes says, “a good leader is somebody who understands what their values are and behaves according to those values; someone who knows themselves really well, and who makes the effort to know others well too… which means not making assumptions about them but instead being reflexive enough to learn from double-loop and triple-loop learning.”
Kouzes and Posner noted that ‘the best leaders are the best learners’. That’s not because those people study lots of leadership models, but because this learning makes them self-aware, which means they can use those models to adapt their behaviours as necessary.
The perfect match
This ability to observe and adapt became key when contingency leadership theories were added into the discussion in the 1960s and 1970s. These theories claim there is no single ‘best style of leadership’. Instead, the best course of action depends on the internal and external situation.
Work by the social psychologist Fred Fiedler of the University of Washington, for example, suggested that the secret of good leadership lies in discovering the ‘perfect match’ between the individual and the leadership challenge they confront.
Do we really need leadership?
What all of these theories (and many others) have in common is that they make a direct link between good leadership and organisational success. But in Reflexive Leadership: Organising in an Imperfect World, authors Alvesson, Blom and Sveningsson caution against the belief that leadership is the ‘panacea’ for organisational problems.
Instead, they suggest, we should be open to other options: “Sometimes we might actually benefit from less emphasis, hope and investment (time and money) in leadership in favor of other ways of organizing work.”
Like Lisa Hughes, they make a strong case for reflexive leadership – which ‘means that people – senior and junior – think carefully about how to organize work and how to use both leadership and other ways of organizing to make workplaces function well’.
What are the alternatives?
Alvesson, Blom and Sveningsson offer other ‘non-leadership approaches’. These include bureaucracy, performance management, quality systems, entrepreneurship and professionalism.
We might add collaboration to this list. For, in an increasingly collaborative work environment, it seems there is no great man (or woman). But there are, instead, many alternatives to traditional leadership that are well worth exploring.