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Theories In Flux

Just as popular and scholastic leadership theory has been shaped and reshaped by the epochs of industrialization, bureaucratization, the communications revolution, and the widespread entry of women into management, leadership theory will continue to undergo changes, determined in part by prevailing societal values such as idealism or realism.

Through it all, a middle ground appears to exist between Tolstoy's persuasive fatalism and Carlyle's enthusiastic activism. It may well be that this world is largely Tolstoyan, subject to historical forces that no man or woman can fully measure and analyze and the consequences of which no person can fully predict. To that extent, leaders are in fact history's slaves. However, Carlyle's Ablemen (and Ablewomen) have still made an impact on the course of human events; their decisions have had a lasting influence on the world, so that historical determinism has never quite had the final word.

Finally, leadership tends to be remarkably situational and contingent: what works for one person at one point in time will not necessarily work for everyone else or even for that person at a different time. Thus, in a very real sense, leadership is an art, not a science. Effective management may be a science (though that too is questionable), but effective leadership is most certainly an art. In this sense, leadership is more akin to music, painting, and poetry than it is to more routinized endeavors. And just as there is no comprehensive theory of art, there is no comprehensive theory of leadership.

Every leader is therefore locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time. This excruciating yet exhilarating aspect of leadership is what makes the study of great historical figures so timelessly appealing—and, in this democratic age, makes millions of would-be leaders such eager students of this peculiar calling.



Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. London: Penguin, 1976.

Bible, The. The life of David, in I and II Samuel; Jesus, in Matthew; and Paul, in Acts. Various editions, including the Revised Standard Edition.

Confucius. The Analects. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: Norton, 1977. Significant for its portrayal of the full range of human triumphs and foibles.

Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Perennial, 1992.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by George Bull. New York: Bantam, 1984. One of the most enduring and significant leadership manuals, with some fifty editions currently in print.

Plato. The Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Shakespeare's plays offer insight into the human condition and human motivations, a deep understanding of which is required for leadership. Hamlet, in particular, gives humanity a terrifying look inside itself.

——. Othello. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Offers a view of how a leader is undone by an evil lieutenant.

Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Richard Emil Braun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Notable for its display of the pitfalls of rigidity in a leader.

Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Ralph D. Sawyer. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.


Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1989.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History. New York: Ginn and Co., 1902. Notable for its theory of leadership in contrast to that of Tolstoy.

Drucker, Peter. The Essential Drucker: Selections from the Management Works of Peter F. Drucker. New York: HarperBusiness, 2001. A significant modern leadership book.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. The Change Masters: Innovations for Productivity in the American Corporation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

——. When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenge of Strategy, Management, and Careers in the 1990s. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

McGregor, Douglas. The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960.

O'Toole, James. Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Oxford University Press, 1931. Of interest for its theory of leadership, in contrast to that of Carlyle.

Steven B. Sample

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLeadership - Leadership In Historical Context, History's Slaves Or History's Masters?, Leadership As A Skill