The Evolution of Leadership Definitions

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While many have a gut-level grasp of what leadership is, putting a definition to the term has proved to be a challenging endeavor for scholars and practitioners alike.

More than a century has lapsed since leadership became a topic of academic introspection, and definitions have evolved continuously during that period.

These definitions have been influenced by many factors from world affairs and politics to the
perspectives of the discipline in which the topic is being studied. In a seminal work, Rost (1991) analyzed materials written from 1900 to 1990, finding more than 200 different definitions for leadership.

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His analysis provides a succinct history of how leadership has been defined through the last century:

1900–1929

Definitions of leadership appearing in the first three decades of the 20th century emphasized control and centralization of power with a common theme of domination. For example, at a conference on leadership in 1927, leadership was defined as “the ability to impress the will of the leader on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty, and cooperation” (Moore, 1927).

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1930s

Traits became the focus of defining leadership, with an emerging view of leadership as influence rather than domination. Leadership is also identified as the interaction of an individual’s specific personality traits with those of a group, noting that while the attitudes and activities of the many are changed by the one, the many may also influence a leader.

1940s

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The group approach came into the forefront with leadership being defined as the behavior of an individual while involved in directing group activities (Hemphill, 1949). At the same time, leadership by persuasion is distinguished from “drivership” or leadership by coercion (Copeland, 1942).

1950s

Three themes dominated leadership definitions during this decade:

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• continuance of group theory, which framed leadership as what leaders do in groups;
• leadership as a relationship that develops shared goals, which defined leadership based on behavior of the leader; and
• effectiveness, in which leadership is defined by the ability to influence overall group effectiveness.

1960s

Although a tumultuous time for world affairs, the 1960s saw harmony amongst leadership scholars. The prevailing definition of leadership as behavior that influences people toward shared goals was underscored by Seeman (1960) who described leadership as “acts by persons which influence other persons in a shared direction”.

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1970s

The group focus gave way to the organizational behavior approach, where leadership became viewed as “initiating and maintaining groups or organizations to accomplish group or organizational goals” (Rost, 1991).

Burns’s (1978) definition, however, is the most important concept of leadership to emerge: “Leadership is the reciprocal process of mobilizing by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political, and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by both leaders and followers”.

1980s

This decade exploded with scholarly and popular works on the nature of leadership, bringing the topic to the apex of the academic and public consciousnesses. As a result, the number of definitions for leadership became a prolific stew with several persevering themes:

  • Do as the leader wishes. Leadership definitions still predominantly deliver the message that leadership is getting followers to do what the leader wants done.
  • Influence. Probably the most often used word in leadership definitions of the 1980s, influence is examined from every angle. In an effort to distinguish leadership from management, however, scholars insist that leadership is noncoercive influence.
  • Traits. Spurred by the national bestseller In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman, 1982), the leadership-as-excellence movement brought leader traits back to the spotlight. As a result, many people’s understanding of leadership is based on a trait orientation.
  • Transformation. Burns (1978) is credited for initiating a movement defining leadership as a transformational process, stating that leadership occurs “when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”.

Into the 21st Century

After decades of dissonance, leadership scholars agree on one thing:

They can’t come up with a common definition for leadership. Debate continues as to whether leadership and management are separate processes, while others emphasize the trait, skill, or relational aspects of leadership.

Because of such factors as growing global influences and generational differences, leadership will continue to have different meanings for different people.

The bottom line is that leadership is a complex concept for which a determined definition may long be in flux.

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