Leadership Theories – Evolution and Criticisms

Leadership Theories – Evolution and Criticisms

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Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on May 10, 2024 19:51 IST

Leadership theories are frameworks that look into the best practices of what makes a good leader. But such frameworks are not new. They have been existing 19th century.


Throughout history, the answer to the question ‘What makes a good leader?’ has been approached through various lenses. The term ‘leader’, in fact, was first used in the 19th century. 

The leader was then synonymous with the concept of a hero, characterised by the accomplishments of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and the like. That’s how the first non-scientific concept of leader emerged – the Great Man Theory, around 1840. 

Over the last two centuries, researchers and universities have theorised the concept more and have tried to explain it scientifically. 

As the industrial revolution took place, the focus on leadership changed to the personality traits of those who led but did not follow. After that, the leadership theories focused on behaviours and situations. 

So, if you have made it this far, this blog will take you through an entire chronological timeline of leadership theories from then to now. 

Great Man Theory of Leadership | 19th Century

This leadership theory was espoused and popularised in the 19th century by historian Thomas Carlyle. He believed that great men are born. They are not made. 

His book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) explores prominent figures and looks at common traits. 

This quote sums up his concept of a leader or a Great Man. 

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Carlyle believed leadership was a birthright because those in the aristocratic lineage could assume the position of a leader. Those with lower social status could not exercise power or have the means. 

This theory is one of the earliest ways of conceptualising leadership through combined traits of great personalities. 

Criticism of Great Man Theory

This leadership theory, however, was criticised by philosopher Herbert Spencer, who believed that leaders or great personalities are created by society. 

Trait Theory of Leadership | 1930s

The trait theory of leadership takes from Carlyle’s perspective but becomes more scientific as studies such as Psychometrics emerged around the 1930s. 

Psychometric assessments are sometimes called personality tests, but early practitioners did not interchange these terms. These psychometric tests were created to learn broadly about mental, physical, and social traits. 

The trait theory of leadership could be argued to emerge from American Psychologist Gordon Allport. He compiled 4504 personality traits and categorised them into

  • Cardinal Traits – These traits refer to those that represent the name and personality of a famous person. For instance, traits like Machiavellian, Byronesque, and Kafkaesque are representative of Machiavelli, Lord Byron, and Franz Kafka.
  • Central Traits – These are basic traits such as intelligence, shyness, honesty, etc. 
  • Secondary Traits – These traits are circumstantial. For instance, if you show calmness under pressure or are nervous about specific circumstances, calmness or nervousness would be your secondary trait. 
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Criticism of Trait Theory of Leadership 

The main criticism of this theory is that it does not look into situations. Critics have also mentioned that the traits do not show how they affect the growth of team members or organisations. 

Behavioural Theories of Leadership | 1940s

Following the trait theory of leadership, behavioural theories ensued. The shift here focused on how leaders behaved on measurable stimuli despite having different traits. 

Two main institutions from the States need mention here. Ohio State University and the University of Michigan. 

The studies from Ohio State University focused on nine behavioural dimensions through 150 leadership statements, that led to the Leaders Behavior Description Questionnaire (LBDQ) and Supervisor Behavior Description Questionnaire (SBDQ). 

These questionnaires were sent to students, administrators and military personnel. In short, seniors and subordinates in an organisation or institution. 

The result was the behaviours of two types of dimensions or leaders that are interdependent. The studies also went into how there should be a balance between the two dimensions. 

Consideration/People-Oriented Behavioural Leaders 

These leaders focus on motivating the team members and ensuring they are satisfied. They give importance to building human relations and maintaining trust. 

Initiating Structure/Task-Oriented Behavioural Leaders

The task-oriented leader focuses on achieving goals by establishing formal communications and working on how they will be achieved. 

A few years after these two types of behavioural leadership were studied, the University of Michigan characterised one more element of effective leadership.

That was participative leadership. The studies from Michigan University showed that employee engagement and productivity, with less supervision from the top, helped achieve broader goals. 

Criticism of Behavioural Theories of Leadership

While these theories could prove that leaders can learn leadership, they do not show if they will be able to apply them in specific situations, according to Kouzes and Posner. 

Contingency Theories of Leadership | 1960s

Moving away from the pitfalls of behavioural leadership, the 1960s gave rise to contingency leadership theories. These theories give importance to situations where one can be an effective leader in a specific situation and not the other. 

Some theories popular during this time were

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory

This theory posits there are no wrong leaders but wrong situations. Austrian psychologist Fred Fiedler purported that there can’t be one leadership style that works in all situations. 

He developed three types of situations which make a leader effective. 

  • Relations between leaders and members, whether they trust each other or not. 
  • How tasks are given to team members
  • The power variables of the leader – for hiring or firing.

Explore more of the contingency theories of leadership, explained in more detail.

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory

Also known as Situational Leadership Theory or Model, it looks into four approaches. 

  • Telling, where the leader directs and makes decisions
  • Selling, where the leader tries to convince the team members and not just direct them
  • Participating, where the leader makes decisions together with subordinates
  • Delegating, where team members take the decisions and leaders oversee them

Criticism of Contingency Theories of Leadership

The main criticism of situational theories is on an organisational level. An organisation’s best option when using situational leadership is to replace the leader when things don’t work out. That means the view of the leader becomes too narrow.

Transactional Leadership Theory | 1970s

This model posits that to get something from the employee, the senior management must offer them something in exchange. 

Organisations that follow this theory create a system of rewards and punishments through which employees can be managed effectively. Theoretically, the theory also takes from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the leadership focus on satisfying the lower levels of needs. 

Criticism of Transactional Theory of Leadership

The main area of criticism is how this leadership theory does not focus on building employee relationships. While it helps achieve tasks, the theory does not look into how to resolve conflicts nor does it encourage collaboration. 

Transformational Leadership Theory |1970s through 1990s

Coined by James V Downtown in the 1970s, this theory focused on the fact that motivating a team, raising their morale, etc., will get the best results in various kinds of work environments.  

By the 1990s, Bernard Bass developed the four i’s of a good leader. 

  • Idealised Influence 
  • Inspirational Motivation
  • Intellectual Stimulation
  • Individual Consideration

All these factors ensure that leadership remains proactive and not reactive like transactional leadership. Look more into the difference between transformational and transactional leadership

Criticism of Transformational Leadership Theory

This leadership style can quickly shift the employee’s focus or can lead to burnouts when there is less communication between leaders and employees

You could also learn about transformational leadership - its detailed history and how it can work, through a Netflix case study and some valid criticism. 

Parting Thoughts

Today, transformational leadership theory or style is mostly used. Transformational leaders, including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and the like, constantly come up in discussion when people discuss what is a good leader. 

But after reading this blog, what do you consider can make a good leader?

If you are still aren’t sure, explore strategy and leadership courses

Or, when you are at the mid-stage of your managerial career wishing to improve your leadership skills and transfer your theoretical and years of working knowledge on these theories of leadership to the real world in a better way, it's maybe time to think about a well-structured executive MBA course


What are leadership models?

Leadership models are theoretical frameworks that guide organisations and leaders to be successful.

What are the four elements of transformational leadership?

Idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration, are the four elements, according to Bernard Bass.

About the Author
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio