The History of Leadership Studies and Evolution of Leadership Theories

Updated on June 12, 2020
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Eric Coggins has degrees in political science, global management, and global organizational leadership. He teaches international business.

While leadership has been a topic of interest since the dawn of man, leadership and management studies were taken up in earnest in the early 20th century. This article chronicles a kind of evolution in leadership behavior studies, from the traits of effective leaders to follower-centered leadership theories proposed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Much of the credit for the information in this article goes to Dr. Peter Northouse and Dr. Gary Yukl and their respective publications Leadership: Theory & Practice and Leadership in Organizations. Through these important works, each man has contributed greatly to the understanding of leadership behaviors within organizations.

This brief survey is not meant to be exhaustive by any means.

Dr. Peter Northouse
Dr. Peter Northouse
Dr. Gary Yukl
Dr. Gary Yukl
Frederick Winslow Taylor
Frederick Winslow Taylor

Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management

In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor proposed the practice of scientific management. This is not a leadership theory per se but changed the way leader-managers interacted with employees and handled production of a given product. Through his own work experience and informal education, Taylor recognized that employers could get the most out of their workers if they broke labor projects into their various parts and trained laborers to specialize in each particular station of production. Taylor timed each part of the production process in order to improve production to maximum efficiency. In terms of leadership within organizations, Taylor believed that leaders were born, not made and assumed there was only one form of effective leadership.

Stogdill's Handbook of Leadership
Stogdill's Handbook of Leadership

R.M. Stogdill and Great Man and Trait Theory

Leadership studies in the early part of the 20th century focused on what has been referred to as Great Man and trait theories. Great man theory of leadership proposes that certain men are born to lead and when crises arise these men step up to take their natural place.

This theory was also related to trait theory. Trait theory proposes that only men with the in-born characteristics for leadership will be successful leaders. The search was for the right combination of characteristics that would lead to effective leading of organizations.

Through two meta analytical surveys of 124 previous studies in 1948 and 163 others in 1974, R.M. Stogdill identified a list of 10 best traits and skills of effective leaders. The 1974 list included

  1. drive for responsibility and task completion
  2. vigor and persistence in pursuit of goals,
  3. venturesomeness and originality in problem-solving,
  4. drive to exercise initiative in social situations,
  5. self-confidence and sense of personal identity,
  6. willingness to accept consequences of decision and action,
  7. readiness to absorb interpersonal stress,
  8. willingness to tolerate frustration and delay,
  9. ability to influence other persons' behavior,
  10. capacity to structure social interaction systems to the purpose at hand.

Kurt Lewin
Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin's Leadership Styles

Kurt Lewin worked with colleagues Lippett and White to pen the 1939 publication, Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. In that work, Lewin et al. propsed three leadership types displayed within organizations. Those leadership styles included:

  1. Autocratic leadership whereby the corporate leader made all decisions without consultation.
  2. Democratic leadership whereby the leader-supervisors included members of the organization in the decision-making process.
  3. Laissez Faire leadership whereby the leader played a minimal role in the decision-making process.

Max Weber
Max Weber

Max Weber and Charismatic Authority

Max Weber, a German sociologist, was the first to propose and describe Charismatic authority (the precursor to charismatic leadership theory) in his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber described Charismatic leadership as "a special personality characteristic that gives a person…exceptional powers that result in the person being treated as a leader.” House (1976) published a theory of charismatic leadership within which he described the personal characteristics of this type of leader as “being dominant, having a strong desire to influence others, being self-confident, and having a strong sense of one’s own moral values” (Northouse, 2004).

Dr. Fred Fiedler
Dr. Fred Fiedler

Dr. Fred Fiedler and the Contingency Theory of Leadership

The 'Taylorists' believed there was one best style of leadership and that that style fit all situations. Fred Fiedler in various works came to believe that best leadership style was the one that best fit a given situation. Accordingly, Fiedler proposed the Contingency Theory of Leadership and the Least Preferred Coworker Scale to establish whether a particular manager-supervisor was a good match for his leadership assignment.

Rensis Likert
Rensis Likert

Participative Leadership Theory

Participative Leadership has been proposed and highlighted by a number of scholars including Dr. Rensis Likert (1967) and Gary Yukl (1971). Likert is best known for the Likert Scale, a measurement devise used to measure degrees of acceptance of a given premise. His theory of leadership styles included the following.

Likert's Leadership Styles

  • Exploitative authoritative - by which the leader shows little if any concern for his followers or their concerns, communicates in a demeaning, accusatory fashion, and makes all decisions without consultation with the subordinates.
  • Benevolent authoritative - is concerned with the employees and rewards for quality performance, but makes all decisions alone.
  • Consultative - makes genuine effort to listen to the subordinates' ideas, but decisions are still centralized in the leader.
  • Participative - shows great concern for employees, listens carefully to their ideas, and includes them in the decision-making process.

Yukl's Participative Leadership

Yukl described a similar participative leadership style but used different labels.

  • Autocratic - makes all decisions alone without concern for or consultation with followers
  • Consultation - leader asks for opinions and ideas from subordinates but makes decisions alone.
  • Joint Decision - leader asks for ideas from subordinates and includes them in the making the decision.
  • Delegation - manager-supervisor gives a group or individual the authority to make decisions.

Leader-Member Exchange Theory

Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX) has been discussed extensively by a number of organizational behavioral scientists including Dansereau, Graen, and Haga, 1975; Graen & Cashman, 1975; and Graen, 1976. LMX is based on social exchange theory and focuses the quality of relationships and interactions between leaders and followers. Organizational scholars showed that leaders develop separate exchange relationships with each subordinate as the each party mutally defines the subordinates role. According to Graen & Uhl-Bien as highlighted by Gary Yukl, higher quality exchanges between supervisors ans subordinates result in

  1. less turnover
  2. more positive performance evaluations
  3. higher frequency of promotions
  4. greater organizational commitment
  5. more desirable work assignments
  6. better job attitudes
  7. more attention & support from the leader
  8. greater participation
  9. faster career progress

Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard

Dr. Paul Hersey
Dr. Paul Hersey
Dr. Ken Blanchard
Dr. Ken Blanchard

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership theory was proposed by Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard. By there conceptualization, leaders choose the leadership style based on the maturity or developmental level of the follower. Their theory yielded a four quadrant configuration based on the relevant amounts of directive and or supportive needed to motivate a given employee to fulfill a given task. The four quadrants are labeled according to the corresponding leadership style related to each of the four sections of the model.

1. Directing is aimed at the least mature employee or member whereby the leader uses only directive words and no supportive behaviors to motivate the employees.

2. Coaching whereby leader-supervisors use both high directive and high supportive words and behaviors in their interaction with employees.

3. Supporting whereby leader-supervisors refrain from directive behaviors and concentrate on on supportive behaviors only. These employees work well on their own but lack self confidence or may be overwhelmed with a new task.

4. Delegating whereby leader-supervisors no longer need to offer directives or supportive words and behaviors. These employees have matured to the place where they are competent and confident in the task and do not need anyone to look over their shoulders.

Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

Path-goal theory was developed by Martin G. Evans (1970) and Robert J. House (1971) and based on Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory. The main underlying assumption is that subordinates will be motivated if (a) they think they are capable of the work (or high level of self-efficacy); (b) believe their efforts will result in a certain outcome or reward; and (c) believe the outcome or reward will be worthwhile.

Path-goal theory is said to emphasize the relationship between

  1. the leader's style
  2. the follower's personality characteristics
  3. the work environment or setting.

Like situational leadership, leaders choose between four primary leadership behaviors when interacting with subordinates, including

  1. directive
  2. supportive
  3. participative
  4. achievement-oriented wherein the leader sets high standards of excellence and seeks continuous improvement.

According to the purveyors of this leadership theory, leadership motivates followers when

  1. the leader increase the number and kinds of payoffs
  2. makes the path to the goal clear through coaching and direction
  3. removes obstacles and road blocks
  4. makes the work more satisfying.

Dr. Robert Greenleaf

Larry Spears
Larry Spears

Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf (1970 and 1977) published a set of essays proposing a new type of leadership focused on the follower. That leadership type is servant leadership. Greenleaf's ideas on this new type of leadership did not truly catch on however until the mid-1990s when Larry Spears dissected Greenleaf's ideas. Spears gleaned from Greenleaf's writings 10 proposed characteristics of servant leaders:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of the people
  10. Building community

Since Spears delineated these characteristics in 1995, a host of leadership researchers postulated conceptual models of servant leadership. More impetus for discovering and promoting more ethical forms of leadership was given in the aftermath of repeated ethical failures within large brand name organizations within the US in the first decade of the 21st century.

James McGregor BUrns and Bernard Bass

Dr. James McGregor Burns
Dr. James McGregor Burns
Dr. Bernard Bass
Dr. Bernard Bass

Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership has been the most widely researched form of leadership from the 1980s to 2011. Transformational leadership was first described by James McGregor Burns and then expounded upon by Bernard Bass. Burns wrote of this form of leadership in his important 1978 work Leadership in which he contrasts the characteristics of transformational leadership with transactional leadership.

Transformational leadership refers to the process whereby an individual engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the followers. Bass explained that transformational leadership was centered in the followers and motivates followers to do more than was expected by:

  1. Raising followers' level of consciousness about the importance of organizational values and goals
  2. Getting followers to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the team or organization
  3. Moving followers to address higher-level needs

Bass, in his 1985 publication Leadership and Performance beyond Expectation, broke transformational leadership into four concepts including

  1. Idealized Influence whereby the leader-supervisr acts like a role model of ethical behavior and gains respect and trust.
  2. Inspirational Motivation whereby the leader communicates high expectations and inspires the crew to reach higher
  3. Intellectual Stimulation whereby the follower-subordinates are stimulated to think outside the box, be creative and innovative
  4. Individualized Consideration whereby the subordinates are provided a supportive environment and the leader cares about each employee's needs and desires.

Dr. Bruce Avolio

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is one of the newest proposed leadership styles. In Academic circles, it was first coined by Dr. Bruce Avolio and Fred Luthans. In 2008, Walumbwa, Avolio and others devised the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire. In that publication, they reworked the definition of the leadership concept:

Authentic Leadership a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster great self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on part of leaders working with followers, fostering self-development.

From this definition, Avolio and his colleagues gleaned four aspects of Authentic Leadership including:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Relational transparency
  3. Balanced processing
  4. Internalized moral perspective

Implicit Leadership Theories

Implicit leadership theories are informal theories about leadership that reside within the thoughts of each individual. They are pet theories we devise based on our respective beliefs and assumptions about the characteristics of effective leadership.

Hanges, Braverman, and Reutsch (1991) observed that individuals have implicit beliefs, convictions, and assumptions concerning attributes and behaviors that help that individual distinguish between

  1. leaders and followers
  2. effective leaders from ineffective leaders
  3. moral leaders from evil leaders

Robert J. House and company and Gary Yukl explained that implicit theories are developed and refined over time as a result of

  1. actual experience
  2. exposure to literature (books and other publications)
  3. other social-cultural influences

Moreover, they explain that these pet theories are influenced by

  1. individual beliefs, values, and personality traits
  2. shared beliefs & values about leaders in organizational culture and national or local culture.

Finally, these implicit theories act to

  1. constrain
  2. moderate
  3. guide the exercise of leadership.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • profile image

      Devi Pariyar 

      2 weeks ago

      Thank you for the great information. I am a grad student for Management and Leadership for a Masters degree and your source helped me a great deal.

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      Thanks so much after 

      8 months ago

      Thanks so much i have even passed my exams with a distiction after reading this

    • profile image

      hina naz 

      15 months ago

      best article

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      21 months ago

      Thank you for this article my friend

    • profile image

      raad Mahdi salih 

      22 months ago

      Thankyou on information

    • profile image

      RUGAMBA Theoneste-Lawyer 

      2 years ago

      Thank you very very much Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard for your admirable theory of Situational leadership which is mainly based on primarily knowing the followers' development and mindset. Reading through this, I actually appreciated the content and hats off!

    • profile image


      2 years ago


    • profile image

      Khaing Phyu Htut 

      2 years ago

      Thank you very much. I am working on a dissertation on educational leadership and your article gives me the introduction I can use. I will thankfully acknowledge your source.

    • profile image

      Dr. Charlene Williams 

      3 years ago

      Dr. Coggins,

      I have added your article to my Blackboard class for Fall 2017 at ODU. It is an excellent overview of the development of Leadership as an academic discipline. Thank you again for permitting me to use your material.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      im doing a essay on leadership where can i find good facts

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      ...thank you very much for this historical facts, i have learnt alot from your work and given me better understanding on the basis of all these leadership theories. Thank you once again.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great piece but not sure why you didn't include French & Raven's seminal work?

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      thanks for this historical foundation it has enriched my dissertation

    • ecoggins profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you Dr. Shrestha, I very much appreciate your encouraging words and feedback. I am glad this article was helpful to you.

    • profile image

      Thakur Mohan Shrestha, PhD Scholar 

      5 years ago

      I would like to thank for the compelling article. A systematic and clear breakdown of leadership theories and the leaders in the article helped me get a better understanding of leadership and the series of theories and styles.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 

      5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      This is a fascinating article. I've read it twice in the past few weeks, and I will keep coming back to it both for reference and to challenge my own leadership skills. Voted up.

    • ecoggins profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you ArtOfSole, I very much appreciate your encouraging words.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for your breakdown of leadership theories and the leaders! It really helped me get a better understanding of leadership and the millions of theories and types of leadership out there:)

    • ecoggins profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you Quinn for the good question. In APA format you would cite it:

      Coggins, E. (2011). The History of Leadership Studies and Evolution of Leadership Theories. (Italicized). Retrieved (the Date) from (the URL).

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      How do I cite this?


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