‘We cannot always attain the position to which we believe we are called: our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them.’ (Marx, 1835. cited in Reiss, E.1997, pp44) At the turn of the 19th Century Machiavelli, in his works entitled ‘The Prince’ (1515), wrote what was to be the first significant literature on leadership. His study isolated leadership as a subject to be studied and a phenomena that can be manipulated. His work was unique as it placed leadership away from the realm of god and the anointed one, and into the hands of man (Barker, R. 2001).
Within his writings, Machiavelli drew upon power through feudal law, and seemed to outline the basic ideas behind social hierarchy and the feudal paradigm. It has been suggested by Barker, R. (1997) that this feudal paradigm has emerged as the fundamental backbone of the modern industrial system, and thus the modern industrial paradigm is based upon ‘an obsession with the persona of kings and conquerors traced back to the age of enlightenment’ (Barker, R. 1997 pp346). Hence, leadership has traditionally been studied as something ‘real’ that creates hierarchy, and research has solely endeavored to define the innate abilities of those ‘at the top’ for reasons such as imitation, training and prophesizing.
However, such studies attempting to differentiate between the characteristics of leaders and those of their followers met little success, and were often found to contradict each other (Gibb, C.A. 1969). Therefore thinking has shifted towards situational variables and their effect on leadership, as well as the social construct of aforementioned characteristics and situations. Other theorists such as Barker, R (1997, 2001) and Gemmil and Oakley (1992) have even gone so far as to suggest that leadership is solely a socially constructed phenomenon that has been maintained due to human needs and the uncertainty that would arise without such leadership.
By referring to such theories as those outlined above, this essay will endeavour to evaluate the traditional view that leadership is a result of real or magical qualities inherent within an individual. From the critique of such theories this essay will go on to suggest that leadership should be viewed as a social process in which leaders are created through the needs and perceptions of followers, and also as a consequence of the environment in which people are born and influenced. Hence, it is imperative for this essay to also discuss the reasons why followers feel the need to perceive other individuals as leaders, and why certain situations legitimize the need for a leader in the followers mind. Nevertheless, it is important that the traditional view of leadership is discussed beforehand as it has been a major influence on many latter theories.
The aforementioned Machiavellian writings, along with Thomas Carlyle’s ‘great man’ (1907) theories made up the first recognized literature regarding the subject of leadership. It is for this reason that Jones (2001) suggests that these early views heavily influenced the greatly adopted traditional approach to leadership. Furthermore, these initial ideas have led researchers to try and define the qualities that are inherent within what they call ‘natural leaders’. Weber (1968) suggested that such leaders possessed a characteristic he called ‘charisma’. Charismatic leaders were presumed to have ‘magical powers’ their followers identified with, thus ‘the charismatic leader can gain and hold authority ‘solely’ through proving his powers’ (Jones 2001 pp758).
Both Thomas Carlyle and Max Weber had drawn their ideologies from Hegel’s ‘world historical individuals’ (Jones 2001 pp761) and thus might explain why it is prophets, founders of world religions, and military heroes that are classed as the archetypes of the charismatic leader (Gerth, H. Mills, W.C 1946). In other words, it is the victors in history and the religious leaders anointed by god that have created the foundations behind which the majority of traditional leadership research has been conducted. These foundations will be referred to later on in the essay, but for now it is important to note that this early view of leadership denotes that leadership is a ‘real’ entity, and that the quality innate within the natural leader is that of superhuman and supernatural strength, otherwise known as ‘charisma’ (Glassman, R. Swatos, W. 1986).
However, the attribution of omnipotent messiah-like powers to leaders may be seen as relatively outdated compared to more recent leadership theories. This may be because they were based in a more religious context, or because the idea of ‘magic’ was difficult to maintain in a scientific world. Thus it seems theorists such as Stogdill (1948) and Bernard, C. (1948) have attempted to fashion lists of leader traits that are more measurable, and distinctly more human. Stogdill (1948) combined results from leadership literature and assembled an overview of the characteristics he found were to be most observable in leaders. Such characteristics included sociability, initiative, persistence and self confidence. To suggest that such qualities are more observable within a leader than a follower implies a similar ideology to that of the ‘charismatic leader’ theory; both propose that the leader is the source of their leadership.
Nevertheless, suggesting leadership traits are specific to an individual also implies that a leader’s success will remain constant regardless of the situation, (Mann, R.D. 1959 pp161) and thus the situation has no relevance. Indeed, Weber may even have gone further by suggesting that the leader’s personality would eventually bring forth the right situation (Jones 2001). However, these are not commonly held views, and many trait theorists seem to consider the situation surrounding a leader as a vitally important external variable. Hence Stogdill’s proposition that the ‘pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics, activities, and goals of the followers’ (1948 pp70).
Furthermore, early theorists such as Weber (1968) and even Machiavelli (1515) drew attention to the importance of the context in which the leadership is needed; ‘the man who adapts his course of action to the nature of the times will succeed and, likewise, the man who sets his course of action out of tune with times will come to grief’ (Machiavelli, N. 1515 cited in Grint, K. 1997 pp66). Fiedler (1965) extended upon this with his contingency theory where he suggested that the effective ‘type’ of leader is contingent upon the environment. Therefore, according to Fiedler, the effectiveness of an organization relies upon the leader’s personality being suited to the amount of control and influence a situation gives that leader (Grint, K 1997 pp128).
However, Fiedler, Stogdill and other situational theorists still persevere that leadership involves certain ‘real’ qualities that the leader should possess to be effective. As summarized by Cooper and McGaugh (1963), ‘the unique needs of the group are met by the unique qualities of the individual’ (cited in Gibb, C.A 1696 pp247). In other words, the follower’s needs in a certain situation are met with a leader who possesses the appropriate characteristics to assist those needs.
However, this view, although very popular, does seem to be significantly flawed due to its reliability upon certain characteristics and the trait theory. The efficacy of trait theories depends upon the validity of Cartesian deductive systems as they rely on the existence of cause and effect relationships between human characteristics and situational outcomes (Barker, R. 1997, 2001). As a consequence, it could be argued that the segmentation of a time era in which to ‘measure’ leader effectiveness may suggest a cause and effect link which in reality has no foundations in the leaders’ actions at all, but rather identifies a consequence of the confounding variables of the environment and other actors within that time period. With this in mind it can be argued that the traits that these situational theories lead people to look for are unrealistic, and may not even exist. In fact, even if they did exist, they may not have any causational effect on the successful leadership of a situation.