How the Understanding of Leadership Has ChangedDifferent people have given many definitions of leadership since time immemorial. Leadership had existed even in the period before human beings existed in their current form. This is evidenced today by the organisation of other species of animals, like ants, honeybees, chimpanzees and baboons, into distinct units with well-defined leadership structures. The concept of leadership as evolved with time in order to suit the needs of a dynamic world. Different leadership theories have emerged, as the way people view things and understand leadership has changed.
In all the different definitions of leadership that exist, many of them simply narrow down to defining leadership as a process of social influence, where one person is able to enlist support from other people in order to achieve a common purpose. Today, leadership is viewed as the process of inspiring and motivating people to work together, as opposed to forcing and manipulating people to achieve one’s own selfish needs (Rost, 1993, 21). For a long time, influence was the character mark of a leader. Many previous and current outstanding leaders are the ones who have been able to influence people to a position of influence.
People take their leaders as the people who have been able to impact on and influence them to achieve something that previously seemed difficult. A leader was and is expected to help people achieve their goals and to be effective in whatever they do. This is the reason why today ardent expectations are laid on the leaders. In the early 19th Century, various theories of leadership existed and were propagated by distinguished scholars. Among these, the trait theory of leadership was highly researched on and advocated by many people, who thought that leadership is a genetic characteristic of a person, and was inherited form one person to another.
The qualities that distinguished an individual leader were all inherent and the leadership depicted by this person could not be changed through training or any other process. The implication of this is that leadership could not be trained and leaders were born and not made. This trait theory of leadership was held for a long period with its various advantages and disadvantages. The believe that leadership was an inborn character trait limited the way people responded to wards leadership, since no everyone was regarded as fit to be a leader.
People understood that only specific people who were able to organize people to perform effectively were the ones who had leadership characteristics. However, research came to prove that those people who showed exemplary leadership qualities in one area did not necessarily perform well as leaders in other fields. People began to realise that a leader would perform well at one point, but in other cases perform miserably.
The implication of this is that leadership is not an inborn characteristic of a person, since if it were so; a leader would be universal and would be expected to perform exemplary well in any environment. This is what led to development of alternative theories of leadership, as people wanted to get a better understanding of leadership in a bid to improve their performance (Birchfield, 2003, 19).