What’s up with Leadership Theories?

For the past three decades, I have been practicing leadership. I have read countless books and articles during that time, but I was primarily a practitioner. I was in the trenches, unaware of the shifting thoughts on leadership. I had no idea what was happening in the greater world of leadership theories.

As I researched leadership theories for this thread, I realized that the past thirty years have been a renaissance in leadership thinking. As researchers acknowledged the complex and challenging world in which leaders operate, they have evolved their thinking about the role of leaders (Benmira & Agboola, 2021). Researchers have now embraced the need for leaders to engage followers and empower them to reach their full potential (Eva et al., 2019). The idea of considering the needs of employees is a major theoretical shift.

Researchers have now embraced the need for leaders to engage followers and empower them to reach their full potential Click To Tweet

In the 1840s, leadership theory centered only on the leader – the “Great Man.” Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle argued that “leaders cannot be developed rather, they are by birth with God-gifted capabilities” (Shafique & Loo-See, 2018, p. 267). In the 1930s, the Great Man theory evolved into Trait theories. The idea was that leaders could be both born or made, but the aim was to “identify the right combination of characteristics that make an effective leader” (Benmira & Agboola, 2021, p. 3). Again, all the focus was on the leaders themselves.

In the 1940s and 1950s, thinking evolved from traits to behaviors. Researchers looked for effective behavioral patterns managers could learn to “ensure effective leadership” (Benmira & Agboola, 2021, p. 3). In this behavior period, we see the first acknowledgment of the importance of follower engagement. Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid framework of 1964 recognized the need for employee-oriented behaviors (Shafique & Loo-See, 2018). They created a two-by-two matrix divided into four quadrants where “concern for people are taken on the vertical line, and concern for the job is taken on the horizontal line” (Shafique & Loo-See, 2018, p. 269). Here we see the start of more employee-centric thinking.

It was not until the 1990s, however, that we saw a full embrace of employee engagement in a period known as the New Leadership era (Benmira & Agboola, 2021). During this time, the focus became “on the complex interactions among the leader, the followers, the situation and the system as a whole, with particular attention dedicated to the latent leadership capacities of followers” (Benmira & Agboola, 2021, p. 4). The research during this time eventually led to a new way of thinking called Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership is defined as an “other-oriented approach to leadership manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests, and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organization and the larger community” (Eva et al., 2019, p. 114). It’s about engaging employees to actively participate in the company’s overall success by taking care of their personal needs and interests. In my experience, it’s the preferred way to obtain sustained high performance in a complex organization.

Servant Leadership is the preferred way to obtain sustained high performance in a complex organization Click To Tweet

When we forget about the needs of our people, we fail as a leader. In our reading this week, we see an ancient story of failed leadership almost 3,000 years old. We see a fatal mistake from King Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. His failure to meet the needs of his people led to a decline and division of a once great kingdom 1 Kings 12:1-19 (New International Version, 1978/2011).

Even though the dividing of Israel is part of God’s response to Solomon’s sin, we can still look at the mistakes of Rehoboam from a leadership perspective. Rehoboam had an opportunity to be a great leader when his people came to him and asked for better treatment. Instead, he not only ignored their pleas but doubled down on their harsh treatment. His failure to listen to his people’s needs and be a servant leader led to a full-scale rebellion 1 Kings 12:1-19 (New International Version, 1978/2011).

We face the same risk if we do not embrace a more employee-centric way of leading.


Benmira, S., & Agboola, M. (2021). Evolution of leadership theory. BMJ Leader, 5(1), 3-5. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1136/leader-2020-000296

Eva, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., van Dierendonck, D., & Liden, R. C. (2019). Servant leadership: A systematic review and call for future research. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1), 111-132. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1016/j.leaqua.2018.07.004

New International Bible. (2011). The NIV Bible. https://www.thenivbible.com (Original work published 1978)

Shafique, I., & Loo-See, B. (2018). Shifting organizational leadership perspectives: An overview of leadership theories. Journal of Economic & Management Perspectives, 12(2), 266-276. Retrieved from https://go.openathens.net/redirector/liberty.edu?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/scholarly-journals/shifting-organizational-leadership-perspectives/docview/2266935209/se-2?accountid=12085 https://liberty-alma-exlibrisgroup-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/openurl/01LIBU_INST/01LIBU_INST:Services??url_ver=Z39.88-2004&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:journal&genre=article&sid=ProQ:ProQ%253Aabiglobal&atitle=Shifting+Organizational+Leadership+Perspectives%253A+An+Overview+of+Leadership+Theories&title=Journal+of+Economic+%2526+Management+Perspectives&issn=25235338&date=2018-06-01&volume=12&issue=2&spage=266&au=Shafique%252C+Imran%253BLoo-See%252C+Beh&isbn=&jtitle=Journal+of+Economic+%2526+Management+Perspectives&btitle=&rft_id=info:eric/&rft_id=info:doi/