The history of leadership

In the earliest theories, leadership is something you’re born with. You can’t learn it. You can’t discover it. And it’s certainly not inherent in the human condition. The Great Man theory (yes, that’s what it’s called) says leaders are great men with legitimate power (i.e. titles that signify their legitimate claim to their leadership).



Functionally, leaders are kings. And they rule their kingdoms, contested only by other people with legitimate claims they were also born into, for most of human history to date. This is obviously a westernized perspective on history, and there were a lot of cultures around the world flourishing under other systems of rule. But that, unfortunately doesn’t change what we learned in school, or what society has likely taught us about leadership.


The feudal system came and went in most places, but even while monarchs were being overthrown in favor of democracies, largely our leaders were “high born” and the average “joe” didn’t reasonably aspire to the Presidency. (Even Hamilton, with his atmospheric rise to greatness, didn’t quite make it to the Oval).  


That said, we were starting to flex other leadership muscles. Not in the mainstream, by any means, but folks were quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) organizing against the elite, and figuring out how to lead efforts that could build better lives for themselves. But the ceiling was high, and the leader rare.



Then, the industrial revolution changed everything.  


With the rise of the factory, we needed a lot of workers to coordinate on one task effectively. We needed to systematize work and hold people accountable to the system. We needed “leaders of men” to manage their co-workers and oversee shift changes. And maybe even to identify the next guy hanging doors on the line, who had the ability to manage the line someday. WWII amped up our need for production even more, and then the rise of service industry and “office jobs” professionalized this already growing need for management leadership. 


If the only people who can lead are kings, the modern economy would crumble. Enter behavioral leadership theories, and the fundamental shift in belief that leaders aren’t born, they’re made. We can teach leadership into folks. We can leverage our leadership to distribute tasks and hold people accountable. We can get people to do the things we need them to do in an orderly fashion, and a system of management can hold them accountable. 



The King had been replaced by the Corporate King: the manager of men (--still, mostly men).  


With the need for so many new leaders, specifically acting as managers in the workplace, there was a new explosion of leadership theory and studies on the most effective strategies to lead. From role theory to situational leadership to transactional leadership theories, there was now a market for leadership tips and tricks, executive coaching, leadership training, and the majority of these ideas really centered on one concept: reward and coercive power (i.e. how to best use carrots and sticks, or raises and the threat of firing, in the workplace to get folks to do what you wanted). Wiedling those tools with skill required to manage your office, or your line, or your team effectively was leadership, and the best of your employees aspired to someday “climb the ladder” and jump through the hoops to be in “management” themselves. 


Of course, management is only a subset of the ways we know people can effectively lead. But it has dominated work on leadership for decades. Even degrees in leadership are largely just degrees in management, most theories on leadership are largely non-translatable outside of an employer/employee relationship, and even the tools designed for “Corporate Kings” reflect this ethos and wear the management moniker--CRMs CMSs Donor Management Systems, etc. 


But it’s no longer working. With the rise of the internet, people are more connected than ever. They don’t need to look to companies for recommendations on products to buy, they read reviews and ask their friends. We have more access to people we trust all over the world, more information than ever before in human history, and an opportunity to build a community around whatever we’re passionate about. We prefer to engage with human beings, not companies, and the internet makes that possible. Now, in order to be successful, organizations have to figure out how to influence people well beyond those they employ. Management is important, but it’s not sufficient for an organization to be successful. 


We’re seeing this trend play out across sectors, with companies shifting marketing resources from purchasing big ads and commercials, to investing in their brand advocates to go out into the world and tell their communities they recommend a product on a company’s behalf. Research affirms that 90% of people prefer a peer referral, as well as the fact that your supporters are your most valuable asset--5% of your customers or supporters control 100% of the word of mouth around your organization. 



The balance of power has shifted. Corporate kings aren’t the only ones with the ability to lead. Everyone can lead. And business elites and organizational leaders are scrambling to figure out how to engage the average person more effectively, because appeal to those kind of leaders is what affects the bottom line. Plus, in a world where people finally have the opportunity to build a community around the thing they’re passionate about, climbing the corporate ladder to management, or moving along the conveyor belt of boredom and debt is no longer the only way. We’re all leaders. And corporate kings need to attract us to their jobs, retain us in their workforce, and appeal to us in order to be successful.


So what does leadership look like today, if everyone is a leader? How do you lead people without the carrots and sticks that come from employing them? 


People have been leading this way since the beginning of human history, remember. But in the background. And we’ve gotten really good at it. Outside of the mainstream corporate culture that brought us “management as leadership” organizers, especially in politics and advocacy, have learned an incredible amount about effectively leading a group of people to succeed in achieving what a lot of people thought was impossible. The women’s rights movement, civil rights movement, LGBT movement--all of those strategies can inform what we make possible, for the first time, at scale, in the mainstream using technology, for everyone to access, even without thousands of volunteers or employees they can pay.    Informed by the incredible work of people before us, organizations that have noticed everyone is a leader and have innovated to meet the challenge, and what’s possible with technology, everyone can truly be a leader, take advantage of the power we have, and usher in this new era in leadership, where…

Leaders aren’t born with titles. And they aren’t taught. Leaders are just humans, and all humans can lead.