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If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about leadership and how to be a great leader, you’ve likely noticed there are many places to turn to. Any trip to the bookstore will reveal a wide range of materials dedicated to leadership theory. But to understand current thoughts and ideas, it’s helpful to take a step back and examine a bit of history.
Lecturers have been around for thousands of years. Just look at the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. But in terms of the proliferation of modern leadership ideas, the printing press proved to be a revolutionary invention. With the printing press, great thinkers living in the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Enlightenment could spread their theories and beliefs to the masses. The Industrial Revolution further built upon leadership theories as people from all walks of life could communicate ideas much more easily. The use of modern marketing also helped to promote and advertise certain speakers and groups.
Today, materials on leadership theories and philosophies are plentiful, and we have these developments to thank. Throughout this evolution, several critical thinkers and influential guides have risen to direct the course of leadership theory. Learning about these people can help you understand how we got to this point. And as a consequence, they can help you learn more about what you can do to step into the role of a leader.
Dale Carnegie: Building People’s Confidence
“The rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”Dale Carnegie
To best understand Dale Carnegie and his inspirations, one must look at the Chautauquas movement. This movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s focused most on educating adults and advocating for social change. As it expanded past its religious roots, it kept many of its moral philosophies and an emphasis on charismatic leadership.
Dale Carnegie was a product of this time and helped to popularize modern leadership theory. He was involved with the Chautauqua assemblies where he got the idea to become a writer and lecturer. As he entered professional life, he eventually developed a variety of courses dedicated to corporate training, self-improvement, and more.
Carnegie later wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that condensed many of the lessons he learned into an easy-to-read guide. Published in 1936, the book sold extremely well—to the point that the publisher made 17 editions in the first year alone. To date, the book has sold 30 million copies worldwide and transformed countless lives. Warren Buffett has even commented on how much the book benefited him when he first read it at only 15 years of age.
Through his writings, Carnegie shared much of what was taught among participants in the Chautauquas movement, but he takes things a step further through the development of his own theories.
Carnegie’s leadership theories include:
- Improving self-confidence through persuasion and communication helps you win people over.
- Changing your own behavior first will help you influence other people’s behavior.
- People you work with are emotional creatures. While criticism may be necessary, without constructive criticism, people will get defensive.
- People act in a certain way for a reason, and much of the time, that reason lies underneath the surface. As Carnegie writes, “Success in dealing with people depends on a sympathetic grasp of the other person’s viewpoint.”
- The key to positive influence is showing appreciation and serving others.
These lessons form a solid foundation for leadership theories. Even if Carnegie didn’t intend them specifically for people in leadership positions, they kicked off a revolution that can still be felt today. Carnegie provided the pillars upon which transformational leadership could happen.
Stephen R. Covey: Refining Leaders Into Their Best Versions
“Obviously building a character of total integrity and living the life of love and service that creates such unity isn’t easy. It isn’t a quick fix. But it’s possible.”Stephen R. Covey
As an esteemed businessman and professor, Stephen R. Covey’s experience gave him unique insight into how to become a better leader. The book that helped him gain prominence was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, published in 1989. That book was named as the most influential book about business in the 20th century and has sold 40 million copies to date.
Covey’s leadership theories that still influence many of today’s leaders:
- Improvement comes from practicing sustained habits every day, not from quick fixes.
- The “character ethic,” which focuses on changing who you are deep down to bring out your best, is a better form of leadership than the “personality ethic,” which believes that success in leadership comes down to a person’s personality and public image.
- Only when people focus on bettering themselves can they put themselves in a position to help others. As Covey explains, “If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy. If you want the secondary greatness of recognized talent, focus first on primary greatness of character.”
While he would go on to write other books, the seven habits he outlined remain his most popular and influential offerings to leadership theory. They help others go on a journey of dependence to independence, eventually landing on interdependence. Covey teaches that the journey is always ongoing, but as long as you keep at it, you’ll always improve.
John C. Maxwell: Providing the Formula for Leadership Success
“People don’t care what you know until they know what you care.”John C. Maxwell
John C. Maxwell is a prolific author who started out as a pastor before taking what he learned and creating a series of books and lectures dedicated to improving leadership. Over the course of his life, he has written dozens of books. Most of them are about self-improvement with a singular focus on creating better leaders. Some of his most popular and influential books are The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, The 5 Levels of Leadership, How to Be a Real Success, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, and The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork. Maxwell aims his teachings squarely at building up a new generation of leaders.
His greatest leadership contributions are:
- Universal laws of leadership will always be true no matter who you are or what you do.
- A scientific framework defines leadership development. All great leaders must be aware of these laws in order to be successful.
- The nature of leadership comes down to influence. As he says, “Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.”
- It’s up to leaders to unite their followers. Maxwell outlines, “What you attract is not determined by what you want. It’s determined by who you are.”
Through his books and lectures, Maxwell expanded on Stephen R. Covey’s writings, emphasizing character over personality. The ultimate message he shares is to serve others. “Always touch a person’s heart before you ask him for a hand,” he advises.
Simon Sinek: Giving Leaders a Purpose
“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek has become one of the most influential voices on leadership theory in the past 15 years. His books have sold millions of copies all over the world. They include Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last, The Infinite Game, Find Your Why, and Together is Better. His videos where he talks about leadership and business have also reached tens of millions of views.
A basic summary of his most notable leadership theories:
- Every great leader must lead with a purpose. As he states, “Regardless of WHAT we do in our lives, our WHY—our driving purpose, cause or belief—never changes.”
- Leaders need to put their strong moral characteristics to use by driving toward a clear goal and purpose.
- A business without a clear purpose is one that will fail to inspire anyone. “Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left,” Sinek warns.
- By clearly defining a purpose, leaders and businesses can inspire change.
- Followers should expect more from their leaders and shouldn’t settle for anything less. Sinek explains, “Returning from work feeling inspired, safe, fulfilled, and grateful is a natural human right to which we are all entitled and not a modern luxury that only a few lucky ones are able to find.”
With his writings focused on the relationship between leaders and followers, Sinek shows how to strengthen it, saying: “The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own.” As long as leaders follow this path, they’ll inspire their followers to do more and overcome challenges.
Brené Brown: Being Brave Means Being Vulnerable
“I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”Brené Brown
Much like Simon Sinek, Brené Brown is a leading voice pioneering the evolution of leadership theories. She’s a research professor, and with that background, she looks at leadership through an analytical lens. Many of her ideas have solid data behind them, showing she has put in the work to understand the issues.
Brown has written or collaborated on numerous books about leadership and the importance of human connections. Some of her most notable books include I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Dare to Lead, and Atlas of the Heart. Brown lives by the motto “Courage over comfort,” which reflects much of her theories on leadership.
Brown’s top additions to the field of leadership include:
- Leaders need to show vulnerability to build a necessary connection with their followers.
- Vulnerability not only shows the person behind the title, but it shows strength and a willingness to learn and grow.
- The key to being a good, effective leader is to show empathy and to learn to see others as human beings.
- Building trust is essential for leaders. As Brown explains, “Trust is in fact earned in the smallest of moments.”
- Vulnerability also means not being afraid of failing. Great leaders put themselves out there even if there’s a good chance they might not succeed. “There is absolutely no innovation without failure,” Brown writes.
Brown has long championed a more empathetic approach to leadership. That might lead to uncomfortable moments, but it showcases bravery in a way many leaders are reluctant to do. “We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership,” she writes, “and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”
Leadership Is About More Than Titles
A common thread linking the different developments in the evolution of leadership theory is the emotional element. From Carnegie to Brown, many of these theories involve looking past titles and creating lasting connections. Treating people with the same respect and deference closes the emotional gap between leaders and followers.
Over time, the thought leaders mentioned have placed more emphasis on turning the leadership narrative around. Leadership isn’t ordering others to do things—it’s about serving those under your care and making sacrifices for their well-being. Leaders shouldn’t stand on a pedestal, but rather they should be on the same level as their team.
Of course, the above experts are only part of a larger movement to improve leadership. To learn more, check out some of the best books on this subject currently available with “15 of the World’s Best Leadership Books.”
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- “What Is a Chautauqua.” New Old Time Chautauqua, https://www.chautauqua.org/what-is-a-chautauqua.html.
- The Benefits of The Printing Press | BBR Graphics. (2021, October 19). BBR. https://www.bbrgraphics.com/news/the-benefits-of-the-printing-press
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- McFarlane, E. (2020, December 10). A Quick Summary of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. https://www.oberlo.com/blog/7-habits-of-highly-effective-people-by-stephen-covey-summary
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