A Comparison of Classical Leadership Theoretical Constructs
Leadership, unarguably, is as old as human endeavours. It came into being naturally, right from
ancient times. As Northouse (2016) argues, leadership is in high demand by many and is seen
as a commodity that has high value. At every point in time in human history, certain persons
have always come forward to take charge of planning, coordinating and directing the affairs of
the community (Phillips and Esposito, 2009). This indicates that human nature detests vacuum
in the leadership of the human race. The natural emergence of leaders is based on human
instincts for seeking basic means of survival like food, shelter and safety. A leader is seen as a
hero who leads his followers to accomplish goals against all odds. Man realised that these needs
or goals can be met more efficiently when there are coordinated communal efforts coordinated
by someone capable of directing their efforts toward achieving them. This can be said to be the
bases of the emergence of leadership (Phillips and Esposito, 2009).
As human society continues to grow and develop from simple to complex systems, academic
models and theories of leadership evolved. The theories contemplate over what makes a good
leader. The development of these models and theories helps in understanding the intricacies
surrounding leadership as a discipline. These theories try to provide answers to some questions.
These questions include: how do leaders emerge? What are the traits that indicate a potentially
good leader? The theories also try answering questions relating to features of good leadership.
Northouse (2016) explains that leadership attracted researchers from all over the world which
led to the development of different theoretical approaches each trying to explain the
complexities of the leadership process. These theories vary in their approaches towards
This write-up takes a look at three of the classical leadership theories by bringing out the ideas
behind them, comparing and contrasting them.
The Leadership Theories
Scholars and researchers in the field of leadership try to understand the concept of leadership
and its antecedents. Many studies have been undertaken on the subject with a view to
understanding what makes a person a good and effective leader. The efforts of these scholars
towards understanding leadership led to the development of many theories now known as the
leadership theories. Each of these theories tries to explain how leaders emerge and the factors
behind the emergence of a good and effective leadership. Three of such theories are discussed
in the subsequent paragraphs.
The Great Man Theory
The great man theory is a 19th-century idea popularised in the 1840s by Scottish historian
Thomas Carlyle (Kakouris, n. d.; Management Study Guide, n.d.). Some scholars believe that
the great man theory is one of the oldest theoretical perspectives that attracted attention from
researchers on leadership (Phillips & Esposito, 2009).
The notion that leaders are born with certain qualities that make them different from other
people is the backbone of this theory. Great leaders like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar,
Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln and even contemporary leaders like Mahatma
Gandhi definitely possess certain qualities that made them stand out from others (Management
Study Guide, n.d.)
Simply put, the great man theory is based on the belief that leaders are born not made.
Proponents of this theory believe that only those born with the special gift of leadership are
capable of offering effective leadership (Kakouris, n. d.; Northouse, 2016). The theory states
that some men are born with special gifts of the required characteristics called traits that make
them different from others and that these traits make it possible for them to assume positions
of power and authority as leaders.
The great man theory is criticised for being masculine in its approach. As the name suggests,
that great leaders come only from among men and not from women. However, contemporary
research has proven this notion wrong. Today, there are many great leaders who are women
(Fleenor, 2011; Management Study Guide, n.d.)
According to Patrulescu (2009), the trait approach to understanding leadership is the oldest
attempt to study leadership quantitatively. The approach, which was developed in the 20th
century, was the first systematic approach to study leadership (Northhouse, 2016).
The theory is based on the assumption that leaders possess certain qualities which distinguishes
them from others. These qualities are known as traits. People with such traits are either born
with or acquire them through learning. In other words, leadership traits can be a special gift
from birth or acquired through leaning (Northhouse, 2016).
As Fleenor (2011) observes, that many books on this theory list some traits believed to be what
make a person a successful leader. The idea of the trait theory is that if an individual possesses
these traits, he or she can be a successful leader.
Fleenor (2011) discovers that some of the traits identified by researchers which affair to make
a leader successful include “physical vitality and stamina, intelligence and action-oriented
judgment, eagerness to accept responsibility, task competence, understanding of followers and
their needs, skill in dealing with people, need for achievement, capacity to motivate people,
courage and resolution, trustworthiness, decisiveness, self-confidence, assertiveness,
Northhouse (2016) believes that the trait theory was challenged in the mid-twentieth century
when the universality of leadership traits was questioned.
According to Northouse (2016), the path-goal theory appeared in the literature in the seventies.
This makes it a new theory as compared to the other two discussed above. The theory focuses
on how a leader motivates followers to reach a set target. Here the leader leads by example and
by making it easy for the followers to achieve the set goals. Therefore, the leader motivates
and removes any obstacles on the path to achieving the goals. Through motivation and
removing hindrance to achievement, the leader enhances the performance of the followers and
makes their roles appear satisfying to them. Through this approach, followers are not coerced
or forced to play their role, but motivated and encouraged so as to allow them to drive
satisfaction in playing their roles (Northouse, (2016).
Leaders motivate their followers by providing information, rewards, better payoffs, making the
path simple and easy to follow and making the followers derive personal satisfaction in what
they do (Northouse, 2016).
Putting the Theories Together
The great man theory is the oldest idea of leadership which argued that leaders are born not
made, unlike the trait theory which argued that leaders possess certain distinct characteristics
which they are born with or which they acquire during their lifetimes. Unlike the two theories,
the path-goal theory views leadership from a different perspective. It views it from the point of
motivation, leading by example, removing obstacles and simplifying things for the followers
and making them feel satisfied with what they do.
The great man theory indirectly makes leadership hereditary. That explains why the oldest form
of leadership, the monarchy adopted it as its model of leadership. Under the monarchy, only a
hair to the thrown is allowed to be the next leader. In order to preserve their blood, royal
families, all over the world are known to restrict marriages of family members to royal families.
This means a commoner is not allowed to marry from the royal family and vice versa. Through
this, it is believed that the members of the royal family will have what it takes to be great
leaders. This contrast to the trait theory which believes that leadership traits may not be
necessarily possessed through birth alone, but can also be acquired (Phillips & Esposito, 2009).
Another point of contrast among the three theories is the masculinity of the great man theory.
Many writers see this as one of the weaknesses of the theory because it indirectly indicates that
only men can be great leaders. Some attribute this belief to the ancient belief that leadership
rest with men. This belief is held to be responsible for the emergence of men only rulers in
most African, Asian and Arab countries. In these countries, women are not permitted or
allowed to rule in many instances. The trait theory, on the other hand, limits the effects of this
masculinity, giving women who are born with or acquire leadership traits to be leaders also.
The path-goal theory is certainly a gender neutral theory which focuses on motivation and
things easy for the follower.
In terms of practicability, the trait theory seems to be difficult to practice in its totality. This
because there has never been a consensus as to what trait make a good leader (Derue, Nahrgang,
Wellman & Humphrey, 2011). The traits identified by writers keep swelling and vary from one
writer to the other. Another issue with this theory is that not all those who have the trait
identified become leaders and not all leaders possess the trait. Therefore, this could be the
reason why the monarchy system which based on inheritance persists up to today. The
monarchy follows the great man theory where leadership is inherited because it is believed that
leaders are born and that those born to the royal families are born with leadership qualities. The
path-goal theory is also practicable as it is based on motivation and self-satisfaction of the
Another point to note is that it is possible to predict a leader under the great man theory, but it
is difficult to predict a leader using the trait theory.
Unlike the great man theory, the trait theory assesses the personality, social, physical and
intellectual traits in order to differentiate between potential leaders from non-leaders. The
theory is concerned with what characteristics or traits that make a person a leader. The great
man theory, on the other hand, is concerned with who are born with or without the necessary
traits of leadership.
Derue, D. S., Nahrgang J. D., Wellman, N., Humphrey, S. E. (2011). Trait and behavioral
theories of leadership: an integration and meta-analytic test of their relative validity
Personnel psychology 64, 7–52. Doi,
Fleenor, J. W. (2011). Trait approach to leadership. Encyclopedia of industrial and
organizational psychology. Sage.
Kakouris, C. (n. d). Topic Overview 1- Classical Leadership Theoretical Constructs.
Unpublished lecture notes on Leadership (UU Phd 803). Unicaf University.
Management Study Guide ( n.d.). Great Man Theory of Leadership. Retrieved December 13,
2017, from https://managementstudyguide.com/great-man-theory.htm
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership Theory and Practice. (7th ed.).
Patrulescu, C. (2009). Comparison and Contrast of Trait-Based, Situational and
Transformational Leadership Theories. Retrieved Dec 20, 2017, doi
Phillips, D. R. and Esposito, M. (2009). The Similarities and Differences between four
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