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More Leadership Theories


The practice of leadership has been going on as far back as we can observe.  In a previous offering "10 Leadership Theories" we looked at where we've come in the recent past regarding thinking and approach to leadership.

In one post we can't possibly hit everything related to leadership, so it's a reality we left out a ton of stuff. We're going to continue this journey by looking at a few more influencers in the leadership area from centuries and millennia ago to today. Hang on!

Lao Tzu - 6th Century BC (ancestor of the Tang dynasty)

He believed leaders were at their best when others barely knew they existed. When the job was done, and the aim fulfilled, people would proclaim they did it themselves!

"Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power." -Lao Tzu

Sun Tzu - "The Art of War"  (Warring States period of 475 to 221 BCE)

He believed the General who advanced without seeking recognition and fame, who retreated without fear of disgrace, and who thought only of protecting his country with good service would be the jewel of the kingdom!

Cicero - January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC

This Roman Consul knew the leader could only deliver results through and with others. To do this he must focus attention on others to cause positive change.

"The enemy is within the gates. It is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we must contend." -Cicero

Jesus - Circa 4 BC-AD 30 or 33

He compared the relationship between leaders and followers to the relationship of a shepherd caring for their flock. Leadership wasn't about dominion, it was about service.

Niccolo Machiavelli - May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527

In his famous book "The Prince" he said it was all about the leader and they had to maintain power at all costs. The focus must be to have power by force or deceit if necessary. The leader needs to appear to be one thing when in reality they are something else. While these are great insights into the perils of managing change, we're still cleaning up his mess today because this ignores fundamental parts of great leadership.

Thomas Carlyle - December 4, 1795 - February 5, 1881

He believed that leaders were born not made. A person either had leadership potential or didn't. If you had it then you would make great things happen. If you didn't too bad. You were predestined to either be a leader or a follower. A leader or a worker. Check out THIS article for more on this approach.

Frederick Taylor - March 20, 1856 – March 21, 1915

He believed in scientific management. Forget people becoming their best and instead focus on optimizing the way their work is accomplished. The "right" way to do a job was defined for workers so they didn't have the responsibility for how they did their work because it was already decided for them.  This approach was abandoned by the 1940s but the impact of his approach still lives today as we experience the massive gap between managers and workers. Check out THIS article for more on this approach.

Trait Theory - 1948 - 2004

By studying & measuring the characteristics of great leaders we could find unique ways to approach development. This trend has faded, perhaps due to finding out that the differentiating factors in these great leaders were above average in intelligence and slightly taller than average. Check out THIS article on the thinkers in this approach.

Behavioral Theory - 1940s - 1960s

The basic premise here is that leaders are made, not born. So by studying what leaders did perhaps we could imitate them and become great. This, of course, doesn't work. You can only become more of who you already are. Check out THIS article on the thinkers in this approach.

Robert Greenleaf  - 1904–1990

He brought back some ancient thinking with his model of servant leadership. "The Servant As Leader" was published in 1970 and his concepts still live on today at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” -Robert K. Greenleaf

Authentic Leadership

This approach is about being the best version of yourself possible. It's not about trying to be somebody else. It recognizes that everyone is a leader. This belief starts with a clear understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses and behaving in transparent ways to combine the best of what we can offer. Check out THIS article for more on this approach.

"A good leader can inspire people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves."

-Eleanor Roosevelt

John Maxwell - 5 Levels of Leadership

  • Level One - people follow because they have to, if you're the boss they have to. Five minutes to quitting time everyone is lined up ready to rush out! People give their minimum never their best.
  • Level Two - people follow because of how they feel about you as a leader.
  • Level Three - people follow because of what you've achieved
  • Level Four - people follow because of what you've done for them
  • Level Five - people follow because of who you are and what you represent

Each level forms a deeper level of commitment because it's all about choice, not the leader's choice, their choice.

What a ride! We've come from selfless to selfish, and scientific to servant. Looking at these different approaches can bring more clarity. More clarity on what doesn't work and what does work.

The best leaders realize they don't have all the answers and trying to be a superhero to solve everyone's problems is a fool's errand. The best leaders don't create more followers to depend on them, they create more leaders.

The best leaders know that to pour into others their cup has to be full so it starts with them. Leadership is our behavior. What we're experiencing is a reflection of the environment we've created.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." -Gandhi

The best leaders know who they are. They know their core values. They know they're human and have to constantly learn how to be human from others. Perhaps our next evolution in leadership will bring back some of the ancient wisdom. The wisdom that recognizes our connectedness. Like the UBUNTU social philosophy that says "I am only because you are."

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This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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