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The evolution of leadership: From Philosophy to Market

Gaining some insight into the evolution of leadership will greatly improve your understanding of the complexity of human behaviours as well as demystifying, to a great extent, our deep rooted motivations. Even though the science of leadership is relatively recent, our quest to understand humans probably dates as far back as the beginning of mankind.

Thus, getting an historical perspective of leadership will shift the modern focus of "How" to be a leader to one of "Why" we are or want to become a leader. This is not to say that the "How" is not important, but gaining some understanding into the "Why" and the "What" will provide the foundational knowledge required to understand "How". More specifically, it increases your ability to act out the behaviours in a natural manner. On a side note, the "What" of leadership is still pretty much debated among researchers and scholars as it was over a decade ago. "The reality is that, as of 1990, scholars and practitioners do not know, with certainty, what leadership is [1]."

The Philosophy - "Why"

Stemming from our quest to fundamentally understand our existence, in 360 B.C.E, Plato a Greek Philosopher talks about the "philosopher kings" and defines them as "those who love the sight of truth" [2]. Of course he didn't at the time use the word "leader" as it wasn't part of the vocabulary. However we can, with a high degree of certainty, extrapolate that he's referring to the very essence of a leader. Thus, in this period and for many centuries thereafter, "leadership" was a question of inheritance and found its justification in the blood line; later it will be referred to as "the descendant genes" .

To further your understanding of the philosophical evolution of leadership, I would recommend reading The Philosophical Foundations of Leadership article. It will provide you with a thorough comprehension of "Why" of "leadership", its history, and the fact that it is still essential for the evolution of mankind.

From the philosophical point of view emerged the "trait theory of leadership", where writers, philosophers, and others deemed as "higher level individuals" started to theorize on inborn personality traits (or characteristics) that were indicative of a leader. Consequently they focused their "studies" on observable facts of known leaders as this era didn't provide any of the scientific tools that are available today.

The Psychology - "Post Why / Pre-What"

Psychology, especially cognitive neuroscience, can be regarded as explanatory of philosophy in that it explains mental conditions underlying philosophical state of mind. More specifically, Wilhelm Wundt, a German medical doctor, psychologist, physiologist, professor and philosopher himself is often referred to as the father of experimental psychology, since he was the first to , open an experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig, Germany in 1879 [3]. This event served as an historical demarcation between philosophy and psychology as a science. An important historical marker for the evolution of leadership. Consequently, and for many decades to come, scholars would dedicate their life to better the universal understanding of abnormal as well as normal human behaviours, their inner motivations, and ultimately the ability to predict an individual or group response to a stimulus. Some scholars paid particular attention to one type of individuals "leaders"; at this early stage the challenge was really to understand what was the "what"? All that was known was that some individuals seem to be predisposed to hold positions of leadership.

The leadership Theories - "Multiple versions of What"

Leadership theories, at their origin at least, are a subset of larger psychological theories, some finding their roots into the motivational theories while other find theirs in behavioural, cognitive or another branch of psychology, while some others use a more integrative approach. That being said, each of those theories provides various ranges of behavioural pattern (s) from which the "best leadership style", from a leader's perspective, emanates. Nonetheless, the objective here isn't to investigate the taxonomy of leadership theories or their associated leadership styles but to simply state that leadership theories are, from a process point of view, focused on the output of the larger psychological theories.

As the psychological definitions of a leader developed and more was known about attributed traits, skills, and abilities that defined a successful leader, the evolution of leadership lead towards making of leadership a discipline in its own right. For example, human communication, human motivation, and management sciences became more refined and applicable to the study of leadership.

Marketable leadership programs - "How, based on one of the What"

Lastly, we have the marketable leadership programs or leadership consultants; where anchored in a leadership theory or even in a specific leadership style, a step by step program is developed in the spirit of taking an individual and "transforming" him or her into a modern day effective leader. In other words, these programs or leadership consultants are providing their customers with a detailed "how to" guide to increase their leadership influence within their business areas.

It is of value to note that these leadership programs, at least in their conception, wrapped up the accumulated pertinent knowledge from the various disciplines and packaged it in a concise logical model to present themselves as a body of knowledge necessary to become an effective leader. It goes without saying that there are numerous leadership programs as well as leadership consultants and they are all using their own model as to "how to" become an effective leader, thus, marketing their own version of "truth".


I find it very interesting to see that in today's modern business society there isn't more emphasis on the officially appointed leaders acquiring foundational leadership knowledge! Most leaders are exposed only to the tip of the iceberg of "How" and thus restrain themselves from attaining a flexible mental belief system that, I suspect, translates into very mechanical behavioral responses. It would be like designing a program that would train someone to perform a heart transplant without giving him or her any other medical knowledge! Perhaps, some heart transplants would be successful, but any deviation from the patient response would ultimately lead to failure as the "heart surgeons" would have the flexibility to compensate his behaviors or thinking. Thus, the importance of understanding the evolution of leadership.

The intent isn't to be using a condescending tone towards any of the leadership programs or consultants. Actually it's quite the contrary. I believe that they do bring value to our society, and are an essential part for the evolution of leadership; however I think that their "effects" are for the most part, short-lived as they lack the transfer of foundational knowledge that allows a holistic view of leadership.

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Leaders are constantly seeking to exchange their knowledge, because that's how we increase our leadership skills.

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