A brief history of leadership through time

Learning to be a leader has never been more popular. In fact, the leadership training industry is worth an estimated $50 billion. But what does ‘leadership’ even mean? If we look back in time, we can see leadership as a concept – and as a set of qualities – has changed almost beyond recognition.

The beginnings of leadership

When society first began, power came from divine or mythical sources. Think about King Arthur and his sword Excalibur or the divine right of kings to rule. At that time, people ruled because they happened to be born into the right family or because they could command the strongest armies. It’s easy to see, then, why leadership in those times meant giving orders and being obeyed, usually because of fear of retribution, whether in this lifetime or the next.

At this time, leaders were: authoritarian, insulated from followers, demanding and dominating, expected unquestioning obedience, used fear and abuse to coerce their followers, and were rare – people felt that few people were capable of being powerful leaders.

Democracy and a change in leadership

Throughout the Middle Ages, kings’ power was increasingly transferred to Parliament, a body made up of the “common” man. This transfer of power led to one important question: where did authority came from, if it didn’t come from God?

In The Social Contract, published in 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined what we still consider to be the bedrock of authority. Authority comes from the people, who agree to give up some personal freedom in exchange for security and safety.

And that idea in turn gave rise to democracy, where people directly chose their leaders. Once people began to choose their leaders, the leaders became accountable to the people. And once leaders became accountable, the people soon realised that those leaders can’t always be trusted to do the right thing.

Moreover, followers became more aware of their leaders’ roles in society. Authority figures were no longer seen to be mysterious figures practicing ancient mystical arts that the rest of us couldn’t fathom. The only difference, it seemed, between leaders and followers were titles.

Read more: Can the qualities today's leaders need be taught?

That gave followers the confidence to demand more respect and more power from their leaders, especially at work, which requires a very different style of leadership.

Qualities of a modern leader

So how does a modern leader work with empowered followers? They could try to use the qualities and skills of the past, and many do. But this leads to a disillusioned, lethargic workforce.

Instead, successful modern leaders understand that they are no longer a source of authority, issuing orders from on high. They are instead project managers, overseeing progress toward a goal and encouraging a team, however big or small, to move toward that goal. This requires quite a different approach from modern leaders.

Today, leaders wanting to get the most from their empowered workforce are enthusiastic and energetic, persuasive, motivational, collaborative – they seek input from their followers, willing to change course, communicative, willing to delegate while maintaining responsibility, eager to participate in tasks – even difficult ones, and they are common – anyone can now learn how to become a leader.

Comparing the two lists, it’s clear that a modern leader isn’t a dictator. He or she is someone who keeps an eye on the big picture, deciding how best to move toward a certain goal after considering the views and needs of everyone on a team. It requires a desire to collaborate and persuade, rather than to order and force.

Many things in life have changed more than anyone could have predicted. Rousseau could not have imagined that his thoughts on power would eventually lead to discussions of flattening organisational hierarchies to create lean, innovative businesses. But as people gain more power in their political lives, they have come to demand it in their working lives, too. Where this will lead, we can’t possibly guess, but empowering people hasn’t led us far wrong yet.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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