In the ancient world, significant leaders were generally approached as mythical figures whose attributes were considered of divine or semi-divine origin. In the modern era, attempts to render the study of leadership more rational and comprehensive had to overcome assumptions and superstitions generated by millennia of aristocratic systems featuring the power and privilege of first-born sons. As the twentieth century dawned, “great-man” theories and “fate” theories dominated the discussion of leadership study. As those quickly proved inadequate, more complex approaches emerged in the study of roles and contingencies.

Trait ("Great Man") Approaches.  As noted above, trait approaches stress the inborn traits of individual leaders, as if everything depends on strong individuals (virtually always men) born with the right stuff. They grew out of ancient mythological notions that leaders are special people who are born with special traits. They were also bolstered by nineteenth-century notions of Social Darwinism, which proposed that leaders emerge through struggle in a "survival-of-the-fittest" context and that strong people and cultures have a natural right to dominate apparently weaker people and cultures.

The early research of this sort was done by psychologists recruited by the military to develop leadership programs during World War I, which aggravated the male bias already built in to the approach. Trait approaches fail because they do not take into account any situational factors and because they historically focused narrowly on traditional masculine and militaristic behaviors. Finally, they do not offer anything we can use to teach or develop leadership skills and habits, since they propose that all leadership traits are built into special people at birth. Their only use is to identify would-be leaders and plug them into leadership roles.


Fate Approaches.  These approaches also grew out of ancient philosophies which stressed large-scale impersonal causation. At the extreme, they take a stance essentially opposite to Trait or Great-Man approaches in that they believe that human free will is an illusion and that nothing individual people do really matters. Everything is caused by fate, chance, necessity, or divine providence. The ancient Greek Fatalists and Stoics elaborated this philosophy, but it also shows up throughout history in Protestant beliefs in Predestination (associated with the American Puritans) and with Marxism, which proposed that history was just a series of economic phases caused by struggles between those who hold power and those who want it.

The problems with Fate approaches are twofold: first, they are easy to debunk because it is easy to demonstrate that individual people do make a difference in all sorts of ways; and second, belief in free will or the absence of free will becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which effects one's attitude about everything. If one believes that one has free will and acts on that belief, then for all intents and purposes one does have free will. If one believes that some cosmic impersonal force controls everything, then the motivation to act can easily be depressed. Ironically, one of the best examples to disprove Fate approaches is the case of Vladimir Lenin, whose personal influence on the Russian Revolution was significant and far-reaching even though Lenin himself claimed that he was simply acting as a puppet of larger historical forces.


Role Approaches.  The study of leadership roles developed in response to the failures of the first two approaches. They focus on actual behavior in leadership roles. The concept of role-playing is important to the study of human behavior in general, since we spend much of our lives playing roles and acting out parts.  A role is really just a bundle of expectations, and we act out different roles in different situations depending on what we think other people expect of us and what we expect of ourselves.  Some roles are common to almost everyone, like son or daughter, friend, student, worker, follower, or leader.  As we’ve noted, the leadership role in any group always involves greater rewards and greater responsibilities than other member roles.  The group gives its leaders more power, but it also expects greater service for the common good. Leaders get paid more, they are given more attention, and they receive much of the credit when the group succeeds.


But leaders are also expected to be more committed to group goals, to set examples for behavior, to understand just about everything that goes on inside and outside the group, and to take most of the responsibility for failure as well as success. And leaders are sometimes called on to make ultimate sacrifices in pursuit of their goals. Many of history’s greatest prophets and reformers, in fact, were persecuted, assassinated, or crucified for their efforts. In one sense, the ultimate act of leadership is martyrdom, which calls forth increased commitment among followers in response to the sacrificial example of the leader.  That doesn’t mean that leaders in everyday life should think of their work as a suicide mission, but it does suggest that leadership has more to do with absorbing pain and hardship on behalf of other people than with inflicting pain and hardship on other people. Put another way, one of the most common yet seldom recognized roles of leadership is the scapegoat role, in which leaders absorb the blame for whatever goes wrong.


Ultimately, as noted above, all the roles that leaders play come in two general varieties: task roles and relationship roles. Task roles focus on the need to complete tasks and achieve goals. Relationship roles focus on the need for group members to cooperate and get along with each other. Task roles include clarifying the goals and purposes of the group, making decisions, planning future activities, representing the group to the outside world, giving out rewards and punishments, teaching members their responsibilities, and communicating strategies for goal achievement.  Relationship roles include encouraging group members in times of trouble, resolving internal conflicts, inviting members to participate in decision making, providing opportunities for growth and development, seeing the humor in the situation whenever humanly possible, and creating a healthy culture for open communication and mutual respect. 


All groups have to deal with both these kinds of roles, and unfortunately they often conflict.  In fact, individual leaders tend to be good at either task behavior or relationship behavior, but very seldom do we find leaders who are outstanding at both.  And no wonder.  It's hard to keep people happy when you're cracking a whip over their heads, and it's hard to make tough decisions if you’re always trying to please everybody.  Some organizations, like the military, have long recognized this fact and arranged methods whereby two different leaders could specialize in each of the two behaviors — a taskmaster to crack the whip, and a sympathetic listener to resolve tension and build morale.


Contingency Approaches. Contingencies are factors or variables on which other phenomena depend. The failure of Trait and Fate approaches led social scientists and other scholars to seek all the factors that might impinge on leadership behavior. Their work in the middle of the twentieth century led to the identification of six major contingencies which influence the need for particular kinds of leadership in different situations.

  • Individual leader characteristics. This one bears a resemblance to the old Trait approaches, but it looks for underlying developmental explanations of deep-rooted values and character qualities rather than simple personality traits. Thus it requires a thorough study of an individual leader's whole life story, including influences during childhood and youth.
  • Follower characteristics. The characteristics of followers tell a lot about the leaders they will follow. Leaders in fact emerge from populations of potential followers; leaders and followers tend to share a pool of common values and shared experiences which give rise to "social character." Social character describes whole coherent populations, of which leaders and followers are members, such as "American college students," suffragettes, civil-rights activists in the 1960s, and Nazis under Adolf Hitler. Follower characteristics can also be divided into two categories: the small group of individuals close to the main leader (e.g. the Oval Office staff in the White House, Jesus' disciples) and the large mass of followers whose names don't make the history books. Disciples and inner-circle followers may be the objects of biographical study; the large mass of followers can only be studied through sociological, demographic, and other social-science methods.
  • Group goals and tasks. Every group is defined by its goals and tasks: a football team plays football and attempts to beat rival teams on the football field; a political party attempts to solve political problems and prevail over other parties. The tasks and goals involved largely determine the kind of leadership needed. The trick for leaders is to clarify goals and tasks, and to break long-term goals into bite-size objectives and clear action steps.
  • Available resources. Much depends upon the resources available to solve problems and achieve goals. The primary resource of any group is its people. Other resources include money, knowledge, beliefs, habits, and values. Intangible resources are often the most critical but the most difficult to recognize. Martin Luther King, for example, drew on the resource of shared beliefs about political, economic, and social freedom and equality (as stated in the major political documents of U.S. history) to overcome the racism and discrimination of his time. Thus people of different races, religions, and social classes who shared those beliefs were able to work together for social justice.
  • Group size and structure. The pivotal factor here lies in the difference between a primary group or team, which is small enough for all members to interact directly face to face in real time, and a large formal organization, in which we join with too many people to interact with all at once. People are wired to behave effectively in small family-size groups. Leaders, however, are often called upon to work with much larger groups of people. The way an organization is structured can make a big difference to the effectiveness of its leaders.

Most traditional organizations are structured in hierarchies of power, with the most powerful at the top and a much larger group of people with much less power at the bottom. At the extreme, this form of organization is totalitarian, which means that the organization attempts to control all aspects of its members' lives. The most tangible historical examples of totalitarian organizations were in Hitler's Nazi state and in Stalin's Marxist state. At the other end of the scale is the network form of organization, in which all members are roughly equal in power and in which information and power both flow in all directions. A good example is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was a network of churches, all of which were the center and none of which is at the top.

  • Environmental pressures. Everything happens in an environment or a context. Everything happens at some time in some place. Knowledge of the history and the surrounding context of events always helps us understand those events better. To understand the Nazi phenomenon in Germany during the 1920s through the end of World War II, we need to understand the history of Europe in the previous century. To understand the American civil-rights movement of the 1960s, we need to understand American race relations over the previous two centuries. To simplify, the pressures of the environment on the leadership event in question can be positive and supportive, negative and challenging, or neutral. This means the difference between boom times and depression for a business leader, between peace and war for a political leader, between growing or shrinking student populations for a college president.