Last updated: April 18, 2019
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Transformation of the concept of leadership over the ages


Leadership – Pre-Classical Era

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The pre classical concept of leadership has been based on a lineage of hierarchy and distinction of classes based on vocations and occupations. This pattern was observed both in Western particularly Greek thought as well as Eastern or Confucian thinking. Patriarchy was the principal concept of leadership with precedence to the elder both in the dissemination of knowledge and exercise of power. Similarly the ruler had greater significance than the ruled. A specific superior – subordinate relationship was established and the dictates of the leader were to be followed very rigidly. The impact of the pre classical form of leadership is observed even to this day particularly in some Eastern societies. This has taken the form of authoritarian persuasion which is said to be followed in Korea and takes the form of reign over people, consciousness of special authority and blind obedience. (Oh: 2003). The leaders were seen as the epitome of the warrior during these times and those who could wield the sword, ride the horse and command the armies were premium commanders. In Greek mythology, the leader performed the heroic journey on behalf of the people, leading them to the path of victory. The thoughts of Plato and Socrates contributed to this concept in Western thought while the Chinese military scholar Sun Tzu and philosopher Confucius seems to have had great influence in its propagation in Eastern thought. Sun Tzu is said to have denoted the leader as a force who could exercise power, influence morals and ensure victory on the battlefield. Plato wrote in 400 BC in the Republic on the role of leadership and the need for leaders to competently administer justice. (Lavezzoli : nd)  Thus the leader was not only a commander on the battlefield but also a moral guiding light.

During this time and also and in subsequent classical era, quality of leadership was central to success and survival of groups and societies. Sun Tzu has highlighted this facet when he said that the leader of armies was the arbiter of the people’s fate on whom peace or peril of the nation depended. The leader was considered as a hero, to be revered as a demi god and in some societies even as a God. This concept of the leader as a principal and hero was to continue even in the classical age. The hierarchical concept of leadership was probably suited to the times as knowledge was passed linearly, professions were based on familial passage of information and leadership remained an elite perception.


Leadership – Classical Era


The classical form of leadership saw leaders as dynamic, decisive, authoritarian and competitive. (Reed: 2004). Leaders were said to be born and not made and continued to be an inherited position accorded to the cream of society. Leaders performed the tasks of governance as well fighting for the land and the state.  Feudalism had grown during this period and hence a large number of feudal leaders emerged who owed their allegiance to a central head in the province such as the large retinue of leaders who followed Charlemagne or Napoleon. Leadership continued to be a skill possessed by certain leaders and was at a premium. It enabled the leader to motivate and stimulate the people to follow him in battle as well as in other forms of civil activity. Machiavelli seems to have been one of the principal influences on the conduct of statecraft and leadership of the times. (Lavezzoli: nd) The qualities of courage, fortitude and valor were suited to the needs of the time as feudal satrapies were coagulating into states and thus the leader needed immense moral strength and physical energy to muster people of varied classes and hues into a singular force. The art of political maneuvering also seemed to have influenced the period, for a number of European states were annexed through such manipulations which to be characterized as Machiavellian politics.  The leaders of this era were more autocratic in nature than those of the pre classical era who were relatively more enlightened due to the influence of the Greek philosophers. While personal liberty propagated by the French Revolution led to greater emancipation, it did not naturally lead to leadership becoming an egalitarian concept. Thus personal qualities were seen as significant for leaders to bring about change. (Nies. Berman. 2004).  The result also was that change lasted only till the leader held the reins of power and never progressed beyond a generation or two of a particular clan.


Leadership in the Modern Era


The emergence of the concept of modern leadership came about due to the industrial revolution. Industrialization led to growth of the discipline of management which demanded a wide range of abilities in modern leaders who were seen as a combination of leaders as well as managers. This period also saw a separation of the field of leadership and management. There was greater emphasis in this era on collaborative work. (Reed : 2003).  The science of management and requirements of the industrial age were the key drivers for the emergence of modern leadership concepts. The key posits of leadership  were trait theories, behaviourial theories, the contingency theory and the transformational leadership. While there were many sub branches of each of these concepts of leadership, the focus remained on the key attributes of their basics. The trait theory denoted that leaders were distinguished by certain specific attributes that were commonly observed in successful leaders. These traits included that of courage, physical strength and endurance, knowledge and building capabilities in others. The Behavioural School on the other hand divided leaders into  two principal categories, those who displayed a concern for people and those who demostrated  a concern for task. A leader with concern for the task was seen to achieve very high levels of productivity  and met tight objectives. While a people oriented leader ensured that the needs, interests, problems and concerns of the people were addressed and mechanisation due to industrialisation did not lose focus on the human approach. An ideal leader was one who could balance achievement of the task with concern for his people, so that long term growth and productivity was achieved. Styles of leadership  were also denoted to categorise leaders. There were those who followed an autocratic style or a participative style, sharing decisions with others. On the other hand the laissez faire style wherein the leader displayed limited control over the situation or the followers was least favoured. The emergence of the school of transactional and transformational leaders was another development in modern times. The transactional leader was one who recognised the needs and satisfactions which were derived by people from work and then endeavoured to deliver these to enable them to contribute to overall achievement of the mission. Transactional leaders, exchange rewards and promises for efforts, they are responsive to the immediate self interests and see that these are being fully met if tasks are performed with diligence. (Doyle, Smith : 2001).

The transformational leader on the other hand, attempted to raise the level of awareness, the points of consciousness and the value of outcomes and guided the manner in which these could be reached. It led to people transcending from their self interest to the benefit of the team, organization and the larger goals. Leadership was also linked to motivation. The concepts of leadership and motivation during this time were developed by a number of scholars such as Maslow, who were not the practioners of leadership but had analyzed and studied its impact in modern organizations. It was accepted for the first time that leaders could also be made and it was not necessary that those who were born into leadership were capable of being so. (Doyle, Smith : 2001)

None the less the influence of charisma in modern leadership continued. It remained the gift of God and even Max Weber is said to have propagated this concept by those who were self appointed leaders followed in distress. Charisma was said to arise both through qualities, skills, personality and presence of leaders as well as the circumstances that may produce a person with the right qualities to lead the people. Thus we have many leaders with charisma such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. These leaders are generally seen to contain the stress within their followers and give them a feeling of hope and renewal. (Doyle, Smith : 2001).

Leadership in the modern era was a complex issue. Thus the contingnecy theories attempted to simplify these facets by providing tools to leaders for making decisions and adopting the correct course. (Nies. Berman : 2004). These developments also led to reestablishing the concept that leaders were not necessarily born but could also be made. Perhaps with industrialisation, there emerged a need for a large number of leaders to carry out multifarious tasks and hence, also the necessity to train people with ordinary abilities to become leaders. This belief concommitantly fostered industrialisation by generating a belief in people that leadership was not the exclusive preserve of those born into aristocracy, but could be imbibed by the so called common class as well.  However modern leaders are frequently castigated for being tied down to emphasizing authority, enhancing productivity and creating efficiency as a result they seem to lose the focus of the main purpose of leadership. (Hjalmarson : 2005).

Leadership in the Post-Modern Era


The post modern era is signified by a general liberalization in all spheres including the exercise of power which is the most commonly recognized function of a leader. Thus the role of a leader has transformed in the post modern era to that of articulation and communication of vision. A leader is said to develop a viable vision and then articulate and communicate it to the people. (Reed : 2004). The key to post modern functioning is collaboration, be it information technology sector, the service industry or the automated industrial firm. This necessates enabling change in others rather than forcing transformation. The concept is to empower the organisation as a whole and not just the leaders. (Nies. Berman : 2004). The post modern era overcomes the hierarchical model of earlier ages and adopts an egalitarian and holistic model of leadership which is in tune with the knowledge era. Leaders are no longer considered as isolated heroes in ivory towers. Leaders do not give directives from the top and then expect these to be implicitly followed by the people in the chain. Leadership is not just seeking compliance, but also commitment which enables collaborative working in a modern knowledge organization. Leadership thus is seen as being distributed amongst diverse individuals and teams who share the responsibility of charting the organizations future. (Senge : 1994).


In the post modern world the leader derives authority not from his position but from his relationship with others. Authority is assigned only when it is earned rather than bestowed by a position. While hierarchy may be essential for creating efficiency in organizations but it cannot create shared leadership, fostered by post modern management thought leaders as Peter Senge. (1994). There are numerous analogies about post modern leaders which would have never fitted in a previous era. Some compare leaders to air traffic controllers others to conductors of an orchestra. (Potok, 2001). Leaders are not seen to lead by example one of the concepts of leadership which was the hallmark of the Classical era, but they “example”, that is they become the very epitome of the qualities which they propagate. This is a more suitable concept of leadership for the dynamics of the post modern era wherein the leader has to face many professional and personal challenges every day. Unless he is able to maintain a correct guiding light he would not be able to survive the vestiges imposed by post modernity. Some management thought leaders as Stephen Covey have called this as, “Principle Centered Leadership.” (Covey: 1990)

The post modern leader allows his followers to see the path for themselves, he leads them to that path rather than issuing a directive about that path. There is no didacticism or certitude in the post modern world, but only the challenge of wading through possible chaos and the leader provides the direction to the people in this confusion and allows them to lead the way. As the Chinese proverb has denoted, post modern leaders are said to follow the adage,

“Tell me and I may forget,
Show me and I may remember,
Involve me and I will understand.” (Hjalmarson : 2005)

Post modern leadership is willfully surrendering control rather than exercising it. This will enable people to work with initiative, decentralize authority and see growth of the community. (Hjalmarson : 2005).  The aim is to create self organizing communities which can respond to change and situations instinctively rather than being goaded by the leader. This is the most powerful representation of collective human power, where every person is empowered to be a leader in his own right. (Hjalmarson : 2005).  Thus the post modern leaders are able to operate in chaos and in fluid situations.

Post modern leaders do not operate from a perspective of dominance and social influence from which modern and classical leaders functioned. Thus they are freed from all activities which were focused on dominating people and communities. The energies thus released can be fruitfully utilized for constructive purposes. (Hjalmarson : 2005).  The aim in post modern era is that of building a culture rather than a cult of leadership.

Post modern leadership concepts are attuned to meet the needs of time, to function in an economy and society which is based on proliferation of information and knowledge. The basic nodes of knowledge are multifarious and are not restricted to one or two persons who claimed to be leaders in yesteryears. The vast spread of knowledge and the need for its efficient utilization underlines the necessity of collaborative networks to exploit it. This is possible only through concepts of goading, guiding and mentoring which is underlined in post modern leadership paradigm.

Correlation of Models and Points of Convergence and Divergence


There has been a paradigm shift in the concepts of leadership over the ages. The pre classical and the classical model were based on the heroic individual idea. (Nies. Berman : 2004). The heroic individual was the hero, the super man who had the power and the ability to achieve results which were seen to be unique, not available to others. The hero thus was born and could not be made. To an extent those born into leadership could be perfected through learning. This was seen in ancient civilisations as denoted in Hindu mythology which speaks of many learning centres, where the kings were taught arts to perfect qualities of leadership. Similarly many influential leaders in the classical era propagated thoughts, ideas, strategies and doctrines to build leadership. It was in the modern, industrialised era however, that a systemtatic study of the concept of leadership, management and motivation was undertaken by a large body of savants to evolve the theories of leadership as these are known today. This probably led to adoption of an excessive mechanistic view of leadership, which was not suited to the relatively free flowing culture of post modernism, which emphasised on a more collaborative and networked functioning requiring leaders to be spiritual guiding lights rather than pointsmen in a bayonet charge.  Thus the post modern leadership concept encourages followership as much as leadership. (Nies. Berman : 2004). This creates shared goals for all people in an organization facilitating achievement of the overall objectives smoothly. This is also seen as a holistic model of leadership, where not only the followers but also the leaders adjust to the flow of ideas, systems and processes to achieve results in a more flexible manner.

Modernism propagates certitude in leaders, of being right always and every time, post modernism on the other hand seeks answers in a contiuous paradigm of collaborative functioning. The leader neither proclaims to be omniscient nor is seen to be as such by his followers and derives his moral authority in being able to guide the followers to the right answer. (Hjalmarson : 2005).  Modern leaders are freqently seen to sermonize as they believe in their competence over others. The post modern leaders on the other hand attempt to make people discover their competence through interaction rather than mere sermonizing. (Hjalmarson : 2005) The post modern leaders have implicit trust in people and enjoy the process of joint goal denoting and achievement. It is the, “we” rather than the, “me” approach.

While these points between the concepts of leadership seem to be at divergence, there is also a convergence between the leadership concepts, and surprisingly between the pre classical and the post modern era. The pre classical heroes derived their authority from the moral vantage point they commanded though partially through hierarchy and regal training build over the years. Post modern leaders also attempt to attain this high moral ground to mentor their protégé into effective collaborators in a knowledge enterprise. There is an innate sense of sharing of power which is common to the pre classical and the post modern era. The leaders appear to be spiritual entities than power wielding despots.













































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Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Classical leadership’, the encyclopedia of informal education, ( 25 June 2006).
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Lavezzoli, Susan. Leadership Theory: An Historical Perspective. ( 25 June 2006).
Nies, Henk. Berman, Philip C. 2004. Integrating Services for Older People: A resource book for managers. Dublin. European Health Management Association (EHMA). ( 25 June 2006).
Oh, Myungseon Oh. 2003. Study on Appropriate Leadership Pattern For the Korean Church in Post Modern Era. Journal of Asian Mission 5:1 (2003)
7.       Potok, Chaim. 2001. My First 79 Years: Isaac Stern. Da Capo Press.

Reed, John. 2004. In Nies, Henk. Berman, Philip C. 2004. Integrating Services for Older People: A resource book for managers. Dublin. European Health Management Association (EHMA). ( 25 June 2006).
9.       Senge, Peter. 1994. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday