The Evolution of a Leader – How to Make Sense of Leadership Theory

evolution of major leadership theories
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My leadership progress and how it reflects the different theories and models of management

I know what you are thinking: leadership theory, surely that is dull and largely irrelevant? Believe me, I understand! I have always thought of myself as a practitioner rather than a theorist but, reflecting upon my journey as a leader, and having been taught various theories over the years, I can highly recommend that you read on. These leadership models can be very instructive in understanding your own leadership style, the areas where you can develop and approaches to help you improve as a manager.

To illustrate this, and hopefully give some relevance to the theories, I will share how — somewhat unexpectedly — I became a leader and then went on to develop my management skills. Leadership theory can be a very dry subject so hopefully, these stories and examples will give you an accessible introduction to each one.

Why is leadership theory important?

You do not have to know every leadership theory in detail in order to be a good leader but, through my experience and coaching other leaders, I have found that understanding a few key models really helps in developing management skills and self-awareness. The most useful theories help us to understand leadership – both our own and others – and how people influence each other. Listed below are some of the major theories that I have found most useful at a personal level.

If you would like more detail on any one of the leadership theories listed below just click on the hyperlinks and they will take you to posts with a fuller description, an expanded story and more examples.

My Leadership Journey – Simon Ash

1. Great Man theory

Great Man theory (Carlyle, 1840) is one of the oldest leadership theories and is the idea that leaders are born with the innate ability to shape history. This is a problem for most aspiring leaders if, like me, you were not born a Great Man by any means. I certainly wanted to be powerful. I wished that I could be great (or at least popular). Back then I did not aspire to be Alexander the Great or Napoleon, I did not even know who they were when I was that young; at that time my role models for leadership were superheroes.

More specifically, I wanted to be Superman. But, unfortunately, I was not gifted with superpowers from birth. Therefore I had an idea that with some rigorous training and putting myself in peril, that my burgeoning powers would be revealed. So, I undertook flying training. This involved me jumping from the stairs in my house to a chair in the hall. For every successful jump, I moved the chair further away. This progressed until a crash, a scream and a broken collarbone later, I found myself the only person in Guildford hospital in a superman costume. I recovered but did not learn immediately. I broke my collarbone a second time before giving up on the superhero training.

So much for the Great Man approach! This theory has mainly been debunked now but the important thing to remember is not to discount yourself from leadership. We may not be born to greatness but we can all achieve great things in whichever situation we find ourselves. And don’t make the wrong comparisons. Don’t assume you are powerless just because you don’t seem to have the same influence as a CEO or world leader.

2. Control and domination

Great Man theory was linked to the idea of power and that leaders could naturally dominate others by the strength of their personality and presence (Moore, 1927). This control of others was considered the natural state of affairs for a leader.

This brings us to my next disastrous attempt at leadership when I was a Cub Scout, aged about 10. By virtue of my age, as much as anything else, I was made a ‘Sixer’; a leader of six other poor Cub Scouts. Every week, on the evening the pack met, we had to line up on parade for an inspection. To achieve this, I used the threat of violence to control and dominate my six. It was a misuse of the little power I was given. Not only is this horrific it is also ridiculous. I was a very skinny boy who could hardly stand up in a stiff breeze. Any show of power was at best highly tenuous and when I look back it is all very embarrassing.

The important lesson here is that power is frequently abused, no matter what the level of responsibility. The events of the early twentieth century and the abuses of power by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao were enough to make people rethink these early ideas of what makes a leader great. We need to remember these lessons if we are going to avoid misusing our influence and becoming toxic leaders.

3. Leadership traits and skills

The next step in leadership theory was studying the traits of leaders, to see what common characteristics made a good leader. In the early iterations of the theory, these traits were very much of an unachievable ideal (Galton, 1869). The idea of a leader being male, tall, good looking, charismatic, confident and outgoing held sway for some time.

Therefore, by this measure, things did not get better for me as I went from a scrawny child to a gawky teenager. If I compared myself to the leadership traits from early theories I had little to offer. I was not charismatic, confident, or attractive. I was not the sports star or the leader of any gang at school. It is almost a surprise that my leadership journey did not stop there. 

The idea of innate leadership traits evolved into finding more positive characteristics such as integrity, moral courage or wisdom. It was recognised that these traits could be developed and therefore the next logical step was identifying key leadership skills, ones that could be taught. The tipping of the balance in the theory, from nature to nurture, was an important one, not least for me! Now the focus was on skills and tools that could be learned by new leaders and managers.

4. Action-centred leadership

When I went to college, for the first time in my life, I was actually taught specifically about how to be a leader. Leadership development was part of our syllabus and I can still remember the lecture where we were taught John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership model (1979). This approach was based upon a straightforward theory you could learn and skills that you could employ.

The simple idea behind Action-Centred Leadership is that of balancing the three core management priorities of the task, team and individual. Most commonly illustrated as a Venn diagram, these three interlocking circles represent the juggling act of a leader. They must continuously seek to achieve the task, build the team and support the development of each individual.

At the time I found, that with this simple tool, I could at least start to identify what I needed to do as a leader and where perhaps I might be failing. I went from the quietest person in my year to the dizzy heights of college prefect with my newfound knowledge. I finally felt that I was developing as a leader. This is the product of having an effective tool that you can apply when learning to manage others.

5. Situational leadership theory

The next key step for me was a lesson in situational leadership. Situational leadership (Blanchard, 1985) is a model that demonstrates how you can adapt your management style depending upon the team you are working with and the environment you find yourself in. The leader chooses their approach – to delegate, support, coach or direct – as appropriate.

I have always loved the mountains and during university, I was climbing in the Alps with a few friends. There was no official leader of the group but the loudest person in the group (not me) inevitably assumed that role. But they did not need to do much as we were all competent. Once roles were delegated out we did not need coaching or even that much support. That went well until we hit a real challenge.

One day we were climbing a long route and the weather deteriorated quickly. The clouds thickened and, as we reached the summit, we found ourselves in the middle of an electric storm. The person who had been leading seemed paralysed by this turn of events. I suddenly knew what to do. It was a crisis and the team needed clear direction. Without even really thinking I took command. I outlined a quick simple plan and led the team, at pace, down the mountain to safety.

Being directive is not my usual or favourite leadership style so this experience gave me new confidence in my ability to flex my approach as a leader. I still find the situational leadership model useful when considering how best to manage a team given their experience and the circumstances.

6. Servant leadership theory

After university, I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The motto of Sandhurst is, famously, ‘Serve to Lead’ and here the emphasis was on putting the mission and the team before self. This idea of ‘the servant as leader’ (or servant leadership) was developed by Robert Greenleaf (1977).

This model of servant leadership – creating an environment where people can flourish and succeed – has influenced all my leadership since. Helping others to succeed is something that motivates me, particularly in my work as a coach.

But what I like most about this model is that it turns traditional leadership (particularly the Great Man theory) on its head. Servant leadership empowers us to lead, humbly, from whatever our position or situation. For me, Mother Teresa would be an example of this sort of leadership. She had a global impact through living by this philosophy.

7. Non-directive leadership

The exposure to situational leadership and servant leadership helped me to learn that my favourite leadership style was non-directive. I liked to ask questions rather than telling people what to do. I prefer to encourage people to be creative, to work together and to share success rather than being loud and the centre of attention.

This style was well suited to bomb disposal which was my first job as an officer in the Royal Engineers. I learned to love working in small, specialist, highly motivated teams. It also set me up for the coaching and consulting work I would do more of later.

If you feel uncomfortable bossing people around then it is important to understand non-directive leadership and how you can influence people without having to shout at them. If you like bossing people around then maybe consider adding some non-directive techniques into your management style. You might be surprised by how effective they are!

8. Transactional leadership theory

I left the Regular Army and started working as a project manager on large construction projects, such as The Shard, the tallest building in London. Here I was mainly managing consultants and building contractors on the behalf of property developers. As compared to the Army, people in this job would not do what I said just because of my position. When the chips were down it was all about transactions.

As a project manager, I had to fall back on the leverage of contractual agreements and money to ensure that things got done. This, for me, was a lesson in transactional leadership (Burns, 1978). This was management using a carrot and stick approach; a functional style that relies on basic human needs such as income and job security. As such it has its uses – as I found – but the approach remains quite limited in its overall effectiveness. That is why it is often considered the poor twin of transformational leadership.

This managerial style of leadership was not one I was inspired by nor one I wanted to rely on. Having to use it was a valuable lesson but I soon realised that the construction industry was not where my heart was.

9. Transformational leadership theory

So, when I was offered the chance to be a part of a non-profit start-up I jumped at the chance. In my new role, I was responsible for the charity’s operations and this included needing to recruit, train and manage large groups of volunteers.

The largest group of volunteers that I led needed to give up one Sunday in three and work a ten-hour day. To achieve this, I had to learn about transformational leadership (Burns 1978). In other words, my leadership had to be linked to a higher cause or vision that would inspire people. My position held no real power. There was no military law, contract, or money to use as an influence. Scarily, I had to motivate the team, without these levers, for them to turn up and do the job. This was the first time I really had to think about vision and how to inspire people to be part of something.

I also learnt a lot about coaching. As the team and work grew, I had to mentor and develop new leaders to take on the extra responsibility. That is another key facet of being a transformational leader – raising up new leaders – and one that I continue through my various responsibilities, not just my work as a leadership coach.

10. Authentic leadership theory

All these experiences led me into the coaching and consulting work I do today. Here I am able to help businesses and leaders as they face their own challenges. As I reflect on the leader that I am today, I feel I am getting closer to what might be called authentic leadership (George, 2003). Being an authentic leader is primarily about self-awareness, balance, transparency and a strong sense of morality.

In my case, I am increasingly comfortable leading in a way that reflects my values, my character and the things I am passionate about. I know that I am a leader who loves adventure and challenge and I find empowering and equipping others deeply satisfying. I am also more confident to share my thoughts and experiences; including admitting when I don’t know or when I have messed up.

And that is good as we can all get complacent as leaders. The saying goes that ‘pride comes before a fall’ and that was certainly the case for me. Just when I thought I was getting this leadership thing sorted, I became a parent and realised I still had plenty of failings! So the journey continues.


Understanding and promoting your own leadership development

So that is the journey so far. Basically, I have come a long way down the leadership path, but I have a long way to go. But that is not a problem. One theme that runs through newer leadership theories is that becoming a leader is a journey of continual learning and development. Each new day, each new challenge is an opportunity to grow.

Leadership theory is only useful if it helps us in that growth. My advice, especially if you are new to management, is to take one or two models that you can most relate to and then use them to help reflect on your leadership and the leaders that you follow or admire. Once you feel comfortable with one style, try another.

I am biased (being a leadership coach!) but having a coach or mentor can massively accelerate your development as a manager. Think about leadership as you would any other skill; if you want to get better, find someone who can help you as you set goals and practice.

You can start now. Take a few moments to reflect. Which of the leadership theories above most intrigues you? Once you have identified one then ask, what aspect of this model could you apply in the interactions you have today?


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