The evolution of leadership: How to become a modern leader Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Has the practice of leadership evolved over time? One could argue that leadership best practices have changed

Has the practice of leadership evolved over time? One could argue that leadership best practices have changed with each new academic breakthrough, but humans have been physiologically identical for at least 300,000​ years with the same fundamental brain chemistry, emotional needs and motivational triggers.


This implies that, given the right context, leadership strategies that worked thousands years ago may very well be as effective at inspiring people today. Or, perhaps more amusingly, that any one of us would be just as enthusiastic (and bloodthirsty) if we were back in the 13th century, riding into battle as part of Genghis Kahn’s Mongol horde.



But as this example reveals, the effectiveness of any given leadership strategy depends on the context within which it is executed. A sales manager could try straddling a horse, waving a sword about and yelling motivational phrases in Mongolian, but this would likely seem more like a comedic stunt than a genuine leadership strategy.


Leadership has evolved to the extent that our human context has evolved: on a primal level we respond to the same leadership cues, but this will always be filtered through our social, technological and professional environments. Let’s take a closer look at how our understanding of leadership has developed, and what it takes to become an effective modern leader.


Milestones in the history of leadership theory

Great Man theory

The study of leadership theory is actually surprisingly recent, going back to the 1840s when Thomas Carlyle popularised his Great Man theory of leadership, summed up in his statement, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. In a business context, Great Man theory is closely linked with the Trait Theory of leadership, which posits that only those who are born with certain leadership traits can ever be great leaders. Trait Theory was popular through much of the 20th century, despite a number of glaring flaws. For instance, it is far more valuable as retrospective tool to analyse past leaders than it is a theory to inform future action. Furthermore, it minimised the importance of environmental factors, which have been shown to define leadership outcomes time and time again.


Situational Theory

On the other end of the spectrum is the Situational Theory of leadership​​​, which presumes that great leaders are more the product of circumstantial factors than innate ability. According to this theory, which was popularised by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970s, leaders should be willing to adopt one of four leadership styles – delegating, supporting, coaching or directing – according to the situation and the readiness of their followers. Situational Leadership is appealing primarily because of its simplicity and wide applicability, but it fails to account for demographic characteristics and doesn’t give leaders room to play to their personal strengths.

Transformational Theory

Transformational leadership is arguably the most prominent leadership theory of the late 20th century, and its influence can be felt to this day. According to the theory, leaders should inspire their followers to work with them towards a greater common vision. By placing followers at the centre of the leadership strategy, transformational leadership in practice requires a combination of adapting to the situation and showcasing traditional leadership traits like charisma and confidence.


Elements of transformational leadership are present in many accounts of the ideal modern leader. For example, popular business leadership consultant Greg L. Thomas describes effective modern leadership​ as “the ability to articulate a vision, to embrace the values of that vision, and nurture an environment where everyone can reach the organisation’s goals and their own personal needs”.

Towards a new frontier of modern leadership

The world is, without question, changing at an increasingly rapid pace. As a result, future generations will face a variety of unique and difficult challenges. Many of these challenges can already be felt today, such as acute income inequality and job loss due to automation. The onus is on institutions of higher learning to instil in the next generation of leaders those qualities, skills and ideals that will position us to face these challenges head on.


Modern leaders need to understand the role of the organisation in the broader society; particularly in areas of governance, sustainable environments, private-public partnerships and contribution to societal transformation. These areas are core to the Postgraduate Diplomas in Leadership Development offered here at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Enrol the programme today and take that vital first step towards becoming an effective modern leader based on your authentic leadership skills.

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