Leadership is difficult to define. Due to that difficulty, leadership is usually defined within the context or study which it is being used (Northouse, 2019). For this article, before we set our definition of leadership, we need to understand its history. This will give us a clear view of the path leadership theory has taken and may provide a glimpse of where it may be heading. Historically, the focus of leadership shifted from emphasizing the traits leaders should have (Fairhurst, 2007), behaviors they exhibit (Likert, 1961), and expected leadership outcomes they desire (Meindl, 1995). We will now briefly look at each era of leadership research.
In the early 1900s, we saw definitions of leadership emerging that focused mainly on the leader’s ability to “impress the will of the leader on those led” (Moore, 1927, p. 124) or to coerce obedience. In the 1930s, the definition began encompassing and discussing influence rather than coercion and dominance (Northouse, 2019). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, group leadership theories (Copeland, 2010) began to emerge, taking the focus off of leadership coercion and pushing it more towards the leader’s effectiveness (Northouse, 2019).
The 1960’s and 1970’s theories formed leadership into more of a behavior (Seeman, 1960) which was a reciprocal process for moving groups to accomplish organizational goals (Burns, 1978). The 1980s saw an explosion of leadership research and theory (Northouse, 2019). It was during this time that leadership began to focus on the leader’s inherent traits (Peters, 1982) and the leader’s ability to be transformational (Burns, 1978). That explosion continued into the 1990s and 2000s and continues to grow (Northouse, 2019) with the advent of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf, 1970) Situational Leadership (Hersey, 1997). It is now, perhaps more than ever, that leadership gets more challenging to define. At least for now, we have a short snippet of leadership history.
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