Leadership: Three Theories, Three Centuries Leadership Theory Term Paper

Pages: 5 (2027 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Leadership

Leadership: Three Theories, Three Centuries

Leadership Theory Over Three Centuries

Many experts have attempted to derive overarching theories of leadership to describe the properties of a social construct that has changed over the last three hundred years, here separated by benchmarks of hundred-year periods corresponding to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Three major examples of such analytical schema include "the great man" theory, "trait" theory and "contextual" theory, discussed further below. But as Winston and Patterson (2006) pointed out from a meta-analysis of literature up to the saturation point where categories began to repeat themselves, so many such classification schema have been proposed to describe the factors that constitute "leadership," that identifying one "right" or dominant such theory exhausts research limitations because experts prioritize such factors differently. This paper will argue the thesis that although trends emerge that differentiate "leadership" over the course of the three centuries ending with the twentieth (inclusive), real examples demonstrate that even within historical trends individual leaders share enough characteristics at the same time as they differ enough, both within similar trends but also between individual leaders, that an exhaustive theory of leadership may be impossible. While trends exist, a categorical theory of leadership would have to explain differences within trends and also individual leaders within the classes arbitrarily set by imposing cut points corresponding to the turn of the respective three centuries. Leaders share similar characteristics within and across the three periods but differ enough within and between the periods to falsify such sweeping generalization. Explaining "leadership" through historical examples must include differences in order to completely describe similarities and thus treat real-world historical leaders as unique, discrete historical events that embody trends through their respective periods, but never so completely that historical theories fully explain great leaders that emerged over those periods.

Supporting this claim with historical evidence requires an operating definition of "leadership." Due to the contradictions many authors convincingly demonstrate that inhere to such a construct in the literature, instead of arbitrarily selecting one of these competing schema to support the claim that individual leaders usually defy categorization into whatever classification schema is fashionable as analysis goes on, this paper will employ the operating definition of "leader" as someone who motivates others to work toward achieving some objective. This definition is qualified as "toward" some objective because the characteristic of leadership does not necessarily imply such objectives are fully accomplished. Many individuals display leadership even though their endeavors never fully play out. Adolf Hitler, for an obvious example, motivated millions toward the task of establishing a thousand-year empire, and while that objective was ultimately thwarted, there is no doubt Hitler displayed leadership power on a scale the world may have never seen before. Therefore the operating definition will include leadership even if the objective goes unobtained.

Winston & Patterson reviewed over 26,000 articles addressing the term "leadership" (2006, p. 6), and derived 91 attributes of leadership after encountering redundancy or "saturation" at 160 papers (2006, p. 7). The claimed that this indicated leadership was such a widely-discussed topic for academic theorists that synthesizing one all-embracing schema describing an intellectual construct in two or five bullet points comprised a "reductionist flaw" (2006, p. 6) since they found that even some 1000 or so descriptions classified into their 91 categories failed to exhaust the potential characteristics attributed to "leadership" in the literature they reviewed (2006, p. 7). Winston & Patterson derived an operating definition from these attributes they presented as encompassing or "integrative" of these other concepts (2006, p. 7), but which included defining characteristics that fail under the most superficial critical analysis. While many apparently capable leaders have influenced followers to "willingly and enthusiastically expend...energy in a concerted effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives" for example, (Winston & Patterson, 2006, p. 7), along with other components of their operating definition of "leadership," numerous examples of prominent leaders could falsify their claims that all leaders use "ethical means and" seek "the greater good of the follower(s)...such that the follower(s) is/are better off," along with other constraints (ibid.).

Stalin, for example, held dictatorial power over the Soviet Union for most of his life, but as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn demonstrated convincingly enough to win a Nobel, used brutal methods that were anything but ethical, or included "emotional and physical healing of the follower" (Winston & Patterson, 2006, p. 7). While Stalin shared many of the characteristics of the Winston & Patterson "integrative definition" of leadership, like many other leaders who wielded quantifiable power over time -- Kim Jong Il in North Korea also comes to easily to mind, what Winston & Patterson demonstrate convincingly in their meta-analysis is that theories of leadership are too diverse and subjective, while their own theory may commit the reductionism they found so flawed and pervasive in the existing body of work in 2006. Winston & Patterson occasionally constrained their definition to "virtuous" leadership (2006, p. 7), but since they criticized other prominent theories like the "great man" and "trait" theories of leadership (2006, p. 8), and discussed leadership in general throughout their extended definition, such a claim to an exhaustive theory seems "pollyanna" or optimistic enough as to mislead more than it clarifies.

In a somewhat now-dated but widely-cited analysis of the "trait" and "great man" theories, Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) also described theories of leadership at that time as "controversial" (p. 48) across a historical discussion reaching back to the 1800s, which would include previous leaders, presumably from the immediately preceding century, as they demonstrated further on after listing numerous traits like Winston & Patterson. Kirkpatrick and Locke explained that "great man" theories explained leadership as inherited characteristics where great leaders were born instead of made or elected, particularly through institutions of aristocracy (1991, p. 48). This "highly popular" theoretical paradigm from the 19th century morphed into "trait theories" where leadership was explained through lists of characteristics however acquired (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991, p. 48), perhaps to explain a rising entrepreneur class who achieved leadership in business like say an Andrew Carnegie, in cultures either lacking the institution of aristocracy, or to explain the "self-made man" type of character rising to increasing prominence after the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. This canonical attribution of leadership to various characteristics was exploded later in the mid-20th century when theorist Ralph Stodgill pointed out that different types of leaders faced vastly different situational factors, say in the military compared to business for example (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991, p. 48-49). Thus environmental factors and character traits coalesced into what Strahan called "contextual theory," which "portrays leaders as having limited leeway to act independently of followers' expectations or preferences" (2002, p. 355), and thus included the constituent and stakeholder into the environmental determinants of leaders' possible action options.

Kirkpatrick and Locke went on to argue "traits do matter" (1991, p. 49), listing six major characteristics without claiming to delineate an exhaustive theory, and compared U.S. Revolutionary War-era naval captain John Paul Jones' "heroic persistence" to retailer Sam Walton's determination in support of this common drive to succeed, which demonstrates some great leaders indeed share traits that differentiate them from more normal, average individuals (p. 51). But this claim and demonstration seems to be trivial if the two leaders shared other characteristics with normal individuals like just for example education, geographic or temporal origin for example. Arguing that since great leaders share certain traits and that these therefore define leadership overlooks environmental constraints, for another example, where other individuals persisted against obstacles they could never overcome, even though a lifetime of determination was destined to end without success. Jones and Walton were persistent but many individuals may also have demonstrated equal or similar persistence without becoming leaders, due to situational factors Jones and Walton may never have faced. Just as correlation does not imply causation in statistical analysis, demonstrating the presence of a shared characteristic falls short of attributing causation to that characteristic or its absence in men of less leadership stature. Other obvious examples undermining the "great man" theory would include Abraham Lincoln, hardly born into the upper class or inheriting leadership characteristics from an impoverished pioneer frontiersman heritage, or Thomas Edison for another. While both probably shared numerous characteristics or traits, the situations through which their ability became revealed were so different that even were a trait, say 'persistence' for example demanded uniformly across both examples, such a trait would be applied so differently as to make such generalization about as useful as claiming that since both were right-handed, then right-handedness is a clear indicator of leadership potential. House, Javidan, Hanges and Dorfman (2002) outlined convincingly how even the same such traits would have differing meanings across various cultures, an assertion that grows more rather than less appropriate as technological innovation reduces distance and increases exposure for leaders across the global geopolitical marketplace.

A group of scholars and political and business leaders at a Harvard seminar in 2000-2001 agreed first that there was "no precise definition or widely accepted vocabulary for… [END OF PREVIEW]

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