It’s not about leaders

|Matt Offord


We have a big problem with the way we look at leadership. We assume that we need charismatic and powerful leaders. When studying leadership, we are often drawn to successful leaders. We tend to think that if we can isolate the elements of their success, we can somehow distill them and create a simple formula for effective leadership. We have followed this approach for over two thousand years. Even though it does not work, it has never worked. In this short blog, I ask if leadership does not reside in leaders, where is it?


In the 1940’s a cataclysmic event occurred in the history of leadership studies. Since the time of Plato, leadership scholars had assumed that discovering the secrets of leadership required the careful study of successful leaders’ qualities or traits. The best-known manifestation of this approach is the so-called Great Man theory. According to advocates, leaders are born and not made. Furthermore, they are male with heroic qualities that single them out. There never was a Great Woman theory. In 1840, the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle presented a lecture series named “On heroes” presenting the impact of historical leaders on society. Carlyle believed that history was defined by great leaders and that normal folk should simply adore and worship such creatures. Although the lecture series and the book that followed were criticised by some, they did much to popularise the notion of the Great Man.

Just over a hundred years later the leadership scholar, Ralph Stogdill realised that the list of leadership traits, by which one might identify a natural leader, was becoming very large and difficult to manage. Unlike previous centuries, it was becoming increasingly important to measure important factors properly and test theories rigorously. Stogdill conducted a review of all the accepted leadership traits and their effect on leadership performance. He did this by considering all of the academic papers written by leadership scholars and psychologists on the subject of leadership. What he discovered sent shock waves through the academic establishment. His paper , written in 1948, could find no relationship between a single trait, like intelligence, and leadership. Thus, ended over two thousand years of leadership study. Academia dropped trait theory and the Great Man and scholars immediately started looking for more sophisticated theories.

But it wasn’t the end for traits. Many businesses and organisations still hang on to the notion of individual traits such charismatic or intelligent leaders. This is even though highly visible and influential leaders let us down all of the time. Ralph Stogdill concluded that leadership is a complex constellation of traits, personality and social environment which creates leadership. He pointed out that successful leaders could suddenly bomb when placed in a new team.  Leadership is something which exists between people, not in people.

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