History of Leadership as a Field of Study

The study of leadership can be dated back to Plato, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli; however, leadership has only become the focus of contemporary academic studies in the last 60 years, and particularly more so in the last two decades. Contemporary leadership scholars and researchers have often been questioned about the nature of their work, and its place within the academy, but much of the confusion surrounding leadership as a field of study may be attributed to a lack of understanding regarding transdisciplinary, inter-, and multi- disciplinary academic fields of study in general.

The discipline (which encompasses a host of sub-fields) is filled with definitions, theories, styles, functions, competencies, and historical examples of successful and diverse leaders. Collectively, the research findings on leadership provide a far more sophisticated and complex view of the phenomenon than most of the simplistic views presented in the popular press.

Some of the earliest studies on leadership include:
        The Ohio State Leadership Studies which began in the 1940s and focused on how leaders could satisfy common group needs. The findings indicated that the two most important dimensions in leadership included: "initiating structure," and "consideration." These characteristics could be either high or low and were independent of one another. The research was based on questionnaires to leaders and subordinates. These questionnaires are known as the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire (LBDQ) and the Supervisor Behavior Description Questionnaire (SBDQ). By 1962, the LBDQ was on version XII.

        The Michigan Leadership Studies which began in the 1950s and indicated that leaders could be classified as either "employee centered," or "job centered." These studies identified three critical characteristics of effective leaders: task oriented behavior, relationship-oriented behavior, and participative leadership.

        McGregors Theory X & Theory Y developed by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s at MIT Sloan School of Management. These theories described employee motivation in the workforce. Both theories begin with the premise that the role of management is to assemble the factors of production, including people, for the economic benefit of the firm. Beyond this point, the two theories of management diverge.

        Blake & McCanse Leadership Grid developed the orientation of "task orientation" and "people orientation" in leader behavior. They developed the leadership grid which focused on concern for results (on the one axis) and concern for people (on the other axis).

In addition to these studies, leadership has been examined from an academic perspective through several theoretical lenses:

        Trait & Behavioral theories of Leadership: Attempt to describe the types of behavior and personality tendencies associated with effective leadership.

        Situational & Contingency theories of Leadership: Incorporate environmental and situational considerations into leader behavior.

        Functional Leadership theory: Suggests that a leader’s primary responsibility is to see that whatever is necessary in relation to group needs is taken care of.

        Information-Processing Leadership theory: Focuses on the role of social perception in identifying leadership abilities.

        Self Leadership theory: Although behaviorally oriented, the essence of self leadership theory is that behaviors are directed toward the attainment of super-ordinate goals.

        Transactional & Transformational theories of Leadership: The transactional leader focuses on managerial reward and contingent valuation. The transformational leader focuses on motivation and goal attainment.

The first doctoral program in Leadership Studies was established at the University of San Diego in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences in 1979. The first undergraduate school of Leadership Studies was established at the University of Richmond (The Jepson School) in 1992. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond studies leadership as a process that can be taught. The growth of transpersonal psychology means that this field has relevance to Transpersonal business studies.