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How Have Views of Leadership Changed Over 2 Generations?

Who are our most admired leaders?

Key points

  • More recent developments in leadership include a greater focus on the role of the follower and recognition of leadership’s complexity.
  • Leadership theories have evolved to focus more on relationships.
  • Rather than admiring renowned, top-level leaders, students’ most admired leaders are parents and coaches who impact them directly.

I’ve been teaching about leadership for more than 40 years, and during that time, there have been generational changes in how students view leaders and leadership. There have also been some important changes in how scholars have conceptualized and studied leadership. Let me start with the scholarly changes:

  1. A greater focus on the follower. Early research on leadership was leader-centric, with little attention paid to the role of followers in leadership. Leadership is, after all, created by leaders and followers working together. Scholars have been learning more about followers in the past decade – what it means to be a good, contributing team member. Research is also beginning to study followership, which looks at how those in subordinate roles contribute and “makes things happen” in teams and organizations.
  2. Recognition of the complexity of leadership. Not only is it important to consider followers in the leadership equation, but the situation/context also matters. For example, leading in one type of industry or organization may differ greatly from leading in another. In our increasingly global world, it is clear that cultural, sub-cultural, and national differences make leadership even more difficult. Effective leaders need to be sensitive to cultural differences and able to deal with increasingly diverse teams and organizations.
  3. Moving from a mechanistic view to a relationship view. Early theories of leadership, coming from Management and Psychology, focused on ways for leaders to motivate followers to achieve goals. These theories, however, were quite “mechanistic.” Leaders were told to enact certain behaviors that would trigger follower reactions. More modern leadership theories focus on developing a good leader-follower relationship (e.g., LMX theory, transformational leadership, servant leadership) with leaders and followers working together – influencing one another to achieve outcomes.

What about how we view leaders?

  1. Our perception of leaders has changed. Two generations ago, when I began studying and teaching about leadership, “leaders” meant the people at the top – high-level executives, elected government officials, and the like. When I taught leadership courses and asked who their most admired leaders were, they were historical figures – Kennedy, Churchill, and, more recently, Obama—or leaders in business, such as Steve Jobs, successful entrepreneurs, and CEOs. Nowadays, students look for leaders in their everyday lives. Their admired leaders are likelier to be parents, coaches, teachers, or even peers.
  2. The qualities of effective leaders have changed. Students also admire different qualities in today’s leaders compared to generations ago. Compassion and empathy are often mentioned as important qualities for leaders – these were hardly mentioned in past decades. Honesty/integrity/authenticity are still considered important, as well as being motivational/inspiring and leading to success.

What will the future bring?

It’s hard to predict, but I believe that:

  • There will be growing recognition of the complexity of leadership and a greater focus on the follower.
  • There will be more women who are admired and serve as role models for students – both top-level leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and women who helped shape students’ image of good leaders.
  • Hopefully, there will be more concern with "communal" leaders who care more about those they lead rather than merely being “agentic” and getting things done.


Allen, S. J., Rosch, D. M., Ciulla, J. B., Dugan, J. P., Jackson, B., Johnson, S. K., ... & Spiller, C. (2022). Proposals for the future of leadership scholarship: Suggestions in Phronesis. Leadership, 18(4), 563-589.

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