Does History Repeat Itself? A Peek at Leadership Through the Ages

The world never stops rotating—as do the needs of the times, the people, and the work. Leadership theories are born from—and are reactions to—this ever-evolving shift. Understanding the driving force behind the defining principles dating back to the beginning of recorded history, places context around how we got to where we are today so you can apply them to where we are going tomorrow.

Pre-Classical: Order in the Court

Authority, structure, rules—thousands of years ago (we’re talking 2000 B.C.), the Bible and Hummarurabi Code set in stone this era’s belief in a reward-based system to incentivize people to work. You followed the rules, you were paid; you didn’t, and there was retribution. These early tomes also speak of a central leadership system to keep order and allow people to work as a team. Moses practiced what might be the first form of management ever documented—he created a structure to organize the judges, which empowered each of the men to govern.

Classical: What Motivates People?

The Classical Era ushered in heroism (Homer), strategic planning and goal setting (Sun Tzu), and critical thinking and communication (Plato) as important talents for successful leaders. Though most thinkers of this time believed in a leader-centric model and the import of a power position, we begin to see the nuances of an integral part of transformational leadership: the impact society (a.k.a your team) can have on your individual success. Plato recognized that leaders cannot lead without followers—and that in order for society to find a leader appealing, that leader should be charismatic and engaging. Plato’s student Aristotle took it one step further, concluding that a leader must first be a follower in order to understand the role of authority, organizational structures, and worker engagement.

​Renaissance: The Best Men Are the Best Leaders

The most infamous leadership example of the Renaissance era comes from Machiavelli’s The Prince, which introduced the concept of the ambitious executive who ruled by fear and bullying. It emphasizes the power of One Great Man to lead. Other writers of this time, like Thomas Carlyle, echoed Machiavelli’s basic leadership theory of elitism and strong personal traits. One thing they got right: the interest in how followers and leaders interact—and the power of strong working relationships continues to inform successful change leaders today.

​Industrial: How Can We Get Our Workers to Do More?

A large workforce arrived with the birth of the Industrial Revolution, as did new leadership models directed at the power of the workers; but not on the workforce as individuals—on the output of their efforts. Efficiency and productivity as measures of success defined this era, creating a transactional mindset ruled by specific deadlines and project milestones. This didn’t offer lasting benefits, however, and the leader-follower relationship withered. On the flip side, Industrial era researcher Mary Parker Follett believed that leaders were talent managers. And so we begin to see, yet again, the need for a behavioral shift in leadership.

​Modernism: Leadership Style Matters

Post-Industrial Revolution ideas moved from celebrating the efficiency of the workers to highlighting the effectiveness of leaders—long-term results were favored over short-term gains. Like their predecessors of the pre-Classical era, modernist leadership philosophers considered charisma to be a key element of any successful leader, but argued that charisma alone does not make a leader. Leaders need to adapt to changing situations and help followers develop the skills needed to succeed in order to become powerful change agents.

​Post-Modernism: Working Together Toward the Same Goal

Era by era, leadership models evolved rule-driven, to the elevation of the great man, to the essential need to understand followers and embrace the power of the people. Post-modernist leadership theorists agree that heft must be placed on the needs of the followers, rather than acting on the desires of the leader, and on the ability to enable and engage followers to exceed expectations.

New leadership theories now focus on leadership effectiveness based on five key areas: 1) have a clear vision 2) engage others toward the same vision 3) enable the right teams to deliver on the vision 4) be open for dialogue (aka feedback) and 5) develop individual and team talent.

Sound familiar? Nuances of transformational leadership were dotted throughout history, but the real lesson comes in the ability for leaders to adapt to the complex world around them and the needs of the working world of that time. The Pre-Classical era called for a need to organize and create order; the Industrial Revolution changed work as we know it and with it how it was believed to motivate such an immense workforce. How we work today is impacted by similar changes to the workforce.

Today, we are in a world of co-leadership. Stakeholder relationships are just as critical as follower relationships, and leaders who focus on creating environments that attract and challenge the best supernova teams will outperform those who continue to focus on the war for talent at the individual level.

Impactful Leaders

The most impactful leaders have the ability to lead and excel in highly complex adaptive environments where one decision impacts another that impacts several more, creating new paradigms. Leaders who develop a workplace culture where understanding and empathy outweigh jumping to the solution will be even more critical. We are moving toward a conscious leadership model—where success doesn’t come at the expense of the world, the workforce, the ego, and where new inclusive environments are born.


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