The Last 100 years of leadership theories. How did we get to today?

Oct 22, 2022 | Leadership

Ok – Time to nerd out but if you hang in there, it might be worth a conversation.

Organizational leadership development follows similar paths to all other evolutionary jumps of humanity. Whether it be social or biological, it is easy to see early indicators of future changes as they emerge from their environment. Each step seeks to break from their current norms to reflect the social needs of their times. An excellent example of this is a reflection on historical patterns beginning with Trait theory, first verbalized in the 1950s, which morphed into Transactional Approaches of the 1930’s post-industrial revolution. These adaptations led to Situational or Contingent styles, first observed in the 1920s, to ultimately find Transformational theories popular in today’s quickly changing environments and global connectivity (Ott et al., 2008).

While the observation and naming of these organizational leadership theories did not occur till long after their initial application, the evolutionary sequence is familiar if applied to an economic timeline of industrial progression. For example, the emergence of Trait Theory, first observed in the 1950s, is most likely the earliest form of leadership. Those leaders who manifest in a society or organization based on personality or genetic traits (outgoing, tall, handsome, etc..) rise to the top quickly. The challenge in this theory is the lack of connection to the leader’s traits and ability to do the job cognitively. We see this in economics as a beginning stage because the person who gains the power can hold on to their leadership seat until it expands beyond their capabilities. This occurred in the Industrial revolution when tyrannical systems worked until a series of events, such as the Triangle Factory fire, created an uprising and a call to change.

Post-industrial revolution and the uniting of the workers allow for entrepreneurial growth and adapting styles in leadership. The first to emerge from the growth stage was the Transactional approach which paced the world’s economic link to global commerce after the second world war. This allowed leaders to expand beyond their frustrations and mimic the commercial actions of the time with their ability to manage their organizations. The earliest attributes of this style created leaders who acted in a particular way and were less adaptive to the situation. Their system began to stress with a lack of innovation, leading the way for Situational and Contingency styles to emerge, allowing leaders to adapt in real-time.

Each of these evolutionary steps occurred in a manner that, with reflection, seems logical and predictable. Each leads to today’s prevailing method of Transformational leadership which is a simple reflection of contemporary economics. In a world of 24/7 connectivity, technological advancements, and rapid growth, today’s leaders must continue to transform their organizations and their thought processes to pace the economic evolution of society. The question is simple: Is the evolution of leadership theory an imitation of economics, or is economics a reflection of leadership theory? It is probably a tiny quantity of both, as they enjoy symbiotic relations that advance humanity and allow for further innovations.

For further reading check out the works of: Editors. (2009, December 2). Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Ott, J. S., Parkes, S. J., & Simpson, R. B. (2008). Classic Readings in Organizational Behavior. Thomson/Wadsworth.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content