Thinking Differently about Leadership

Thinking Differently about Leadership

A Critical History of Leadership Studies

New Horizons in Leadership Studies series

Suze Wilson

This book is a critical historical analysis of leadership thought in the Western tradition, examining Classical Greek, medieval and modern social scientific theories of leadership, focussing on the assumptions and effects which arise from these ways of understanding leadership and offering a new basis for leadership theory-building.

Chapter 5: The foundations of leadership ‘science’: Carlyle and the trait theorists

Suze Wilson

Subjects: business and management, business leadership, politics and public policy, leadership


Today, leadership scholarship is generally understood as according with the standards, values and norms of modern social science. Most crucially, this means it is understood as offering an objective assessment of independently verifiable evidence leading to findings that, while always provisional, can nonetheless be trusted as accurate, fair and reliable until proven otherwise. Knowledge generated via scientific methods is expected to be continuously improved, authoritative and to serve all of humanity, not just partisan interests. This and the next chapter will, however, challenge the normal confidence that what has been produced in the era of modern leadership studies is a reliable and progressive science. To be clear, I am not assuming that a truly objective, ‘scientific’ account of leadership can, in fact, be established, nor am I assuming that leadership has a definitive essence or character which exists outside of, or prior to, how we conceive of it. However, those are the assumptions to which most leadership scholars today hold. Accordingly, over the course of this and the next chapter I directly challenge the extent to which a credible science of leadership has been achieved according to the standards and assumptions by which the field typically operates. I offer an alternative account of developments in the field. As the quotes above from Carlyle and, nearly 170 years later, from Bass exemplify, the central preoccupation and positioning of modern leadership discourse has been its highly optimistic stance as regards the nature, value and impact of leadership.

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