Merriam Webster defines leadership, the noun, as "the act or an instance of leading." Leading, the verb, is defined as "providing direction or guidance." So, our simple definition is that leadership is the act or instance of providing direction or guidance to a group. That group can be a company, a school, a government agency, a country, or any number of other identifiable collections of people. There have to be at least two people, a leader, and a follower for leadership to exist. The philosophical view of leadership investigates its various foundations, including the societal, biological, and social drivers. But we will save for another post. Instead, let's briefly outline the modern history of leadership in the United States.
As the Industrial Age became well established in the U.S., psychologists started looking at what leadership meant to organizations. The prevailing theory of that time was the Great Man Theory, which essentially said that great leaders are born, not made, and they rise to the occasion when given the opportunity. The use of the term "Man" is literal as women did not hold positions of authority at that time, and often, leadership positions were passed down from a father to his son. By the 1930s, new types of theories of leadership began to emerge like Trait Theory and Behavioral Theories that looked more closely at specific traits and behaviors of successful leaders. These leadership types from the 1940s and 1950s still had a strong bias toward male characteristics as few women were yet in leadership positions. By the 1960s, leadership theories began to emerge that posited the importance of matching leadership styles to specific situations. These categories have become known as Contingency Theories, Transactional Leadership Theories, and Transformational Leadership Theories. It wasn't until the late 1970s that research began to emerge, looking at the attributes and contributions of men and women in leadership in the United States (Jogulu, 2006). Rather than go into the detail of various leadership theories here, let us discuss three critical ways that leadership and management theories have evolved since the Industrial Age, specifically, the changing role of women in leadership, the impact of technology, and our changing post-Industrial Age economy.
The Changing Role of Women in Leadership
Leadership theories did not start incorporating, comparing, and contrasting men and women until the late 1970s. Before that time, approaches were developed studying organizational environments dominated by male leaders. Since then, women have received increasing attention in the study and development of leadership theories. One recent example is the finding that male leaders overall seem to be less competitive in the workplace when pursuing goals while millennial males and females appear to both prefer more competition (Robinson, 2017). Another example is Jogulu's observation that the characteristics of a successful leader in the Transformational style favor typical female versus typical male traits.
The Impact of Technology
Since the Industrial Age technology has positively impacted our ability to study mental processes and behaviors that offer insight into leadership. Technology advanced the automated production of goods and has dramatically improved the rapidity and reliability with which management information is made available to leaders. Managers and leaders can communicate on-demand via electronic means with literally anyone in the world at any time. Technology has even changed the options for where managers can work, which has opened up possibilities for men and women who want to spend more time during the day with their families. While the flexibility for work and work schedules provided by technology started with noble intentions, the reality for some has been that their quality of life has not improved. In fact, according to one study, technology alone has not changed the fact that men have more power of time than women, and women still carry a disproportionately higher duty to complete daily tasks for families of heterosexual couples studied (Rafnsdóttir, 2018).
The Post-Industrial Age Economy
Since the peak of the Industrial Age, the U.S. economy has transitioned from one of goods production to one heavily dominated by the provision of services. The focus of leadership in the United States has shifted away from viewing employees as a "natural resource" or "input" for the production of goods, to the realization that employees in a service economy are the actual product. This economic shift has driven the need for successful leaders to remain flexible as called for in the Contingency Theories of leadership and even adopt completely different Transformational Leadership Styles that focus on the active development of employees and offer them autonomy in their work. This shift has also encouraged a much more supportive vs. autocratic style of management. Although one recent review found that the authoritarian leadership style is still alive and well in the context of a global society (Harms, 2018).
In our society, one will always occupy one of two roles, a leader or a follower. More importantly, it doesn't matter which one you choose. What matters is that you can identify leaders who motivate you and who will help you perform at your best. Then you should try to work for that person and learn from him or her. If you want to be a leader, you must make an effort to develop your traits and behaviors in ways that make you someone that others want to follow. Your goal should be to become what Church and Conger (2018) refer to as a "High Potential" contributor. For the rest of your academic or professional career, someone will project your leadership potential based upon their assessment of your ability to perform in future jobs that you have not held yet with demands that you have never experienced (Church, 2018).
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Church, A. H., & Conger, J. A. (2018). So You Want to Be a High Potential? Five X-Factors for Realizing the High Potential's Advantage. People & Strategy, 41(1), 17-21.
Harms, P., Wood, D., Landay, K., Lester, P. B., & Vogelgesang Lester, G. (2018). Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future. Leadership Quarterly, 29(1), 105-122.
Leadership-central. (2016). Leadership theories. Available online at http://www.leadership-central.com/leadership-theories.html
Leahey, T. H., Greer, S., Lefrancois, G. R., Reiner, T. W., Spencer, J. L., Wickramasekera, I. E., & Willmarth, E. K. (2014). History of psychology. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.
Rafnsdóttir, G. L., & Júlíusdóttir, Ó. (2018). Reproducing gender roles through virtual work: The case of senior management. International Journal Of Media & Cultural Politics, 14(1), 77-94.
Robinson, J. L., & Lipman‐Blumen, J. (2017). Challenging our assumptions about male and female preferences for competition. Journal Of Leadership Studies, 10(4), 66-74.
Uma D., J., & Glenice J., W. (2006). The role of leadership theory in raising the profile of women in management. Equal Opportunities International, 25(4), 236-250.