The different Paradigms in Leadership

Developing leaders has been a concern since antiquity. From ancient Egypt there is evidence that preparing the pharaohs for leadership was a matter of importance to which great thought and analysis were devoted. Aristotle was responsible for the development of Alexander the Great, the future leader of an empire. But this age-old approach is one of developing leaders – people assumed by birth to be leaders – which is different from the idea of developing leadership.

More recent ideas hold that learned abilities and circumstances make the main difference in leadership: the quality of leadership emerges in a person in a certain context. This is usually what we have in mind when we think about developing leadership today: developing the general human capacity of most people to act as leaders when needed. This is quite different from the old idea of training and developing someone presumed  to be born as a leader.

Thus the first Paradigm in Leadership was about nurturing and educating preconceived leaders, preparing people of “obvious” leadership potential to discharge their duty. As assumptions that Leadership was purely inborn were replaced by ideas of leadership as something that a person could learn to do, something that could emerge if circumstances required it, the approach to leadership development changed from one of teaching people in general how to become leaders; this was a Paradigm Shift!

During this Paradigm shift the ideas of leadership itself and of leadership development have changed in tandem. When thinking about how to develop leadership, it matters a great deal what leadership is assumed to be. Which brings us to the subject of this paper. How might the idea of leadership be changing again, and how might these changes affect the practice of leadership development in the coming years?

Changes in leadership are not only about how leadership is defined but also about how people practice leadership, that is, what people in workgroups, teams, and organizations actually do. What people actually do depends a lot on what they think; ideas and definitions provide frameworks for action. Changes in leadership thus reflect changes both in action and in action.

 “In an increasingly dynamic, interdependent and unpredictable world, it is simply no longer possible for anyone to figure it out at the top.

The old model ‘the top thinks, the local acts’ must now give away to integrate thinking and acting at all levels.”

Peter M. Senge[



Fig 2 The Lemniscate depicts the different phases of thinking and doing

Leadership might seem to be something that hasn’t changed much down through the centuries. As becomes clear in this paper, I believe the practice of leadership has changed a great deal. What hasn’t changed is the need for leadership. People have always appeared to need some force within their various groups, communities, tribes, and organizations to help them create direction, avoid disorder, and respond to changes in their surroundings. Humans survive on this planet by pulling together, and leadership is a name we give to whatever it is that gets us going in a common direction. The goals of creating direction and responding to external changes remain as much alive today as ever before. But what does seem to change constantly throughout history is the means by which humans try to create this leadership force.

In the ancient world, the idea of leadership seems to have been that of domination, ruling over followers; there were kings and there were subjects. Kings led, subjects followed, as by natural law. This idea of leadership prevailed for thousands of years.


Fig 3 First Paradigm – Leaders as Rulers

But by the time of the French and American Revolution a distinctly different idea of leadership began to surface, one in line with a more enlightened approach that included the rise of democracy. This is an idea of leadership as social influence, where a leader sees the need to respect and understand followers and tries to motivate them through rational and emotional appeals. This has been termed transactional leadership (Bass, 1985.)


Fig 4 Second Paradigm – Transactional Leadership

In the twentieth century, the evolution of a modern idea of leadership reflected an understanding of humanity as having inner psychological motives as well as outer social concerns. The modern idea of leadership is one of creating in people an inner commitment to social goals, of transforming a person’s self-interest into a larger social concern. This has been called transformational leadership (Bass, 1995) and represents a sophisticated and well-researched understanding of leadership.


Fig 5 Third Paradigm: Transformational Leadership

In each of these paradigm shifts in the idea and practice of leadership, there seems to have been a consistent tendency to increase the equality between the leader and followers. From the ancient idea that the leader was the absolute ruler, to the idea that the leader’s job was to influence people to do what the leader saw as needing to be done, to the idea that leaders and followers must share an inner sense of commitment to a larger purpose, the gap between the power and role of the leader and that of the follower has narrowed.

“In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness”


 We see some indications today that the idea and practice of leadership are undergoing yet another change. This new form has become, in my eyes, crystal clear, the change in leadership this time involves erasing altogether the distinction between leaders and followers. Our interpretation (consciousness) of these facts (awareness) is an erasing altogether of the distinctions between leaders and followers. We, Charlie’s Eagles, understand leadership as a process that plays out in reciprocal actions. By this we mean all members of a society or an organization, who work together, in whatever roles of authority and power they may have, are appreciated as reciprocating partners in determining what makes sense, how to adapt to change, what is a useful direction – the guiding vision.

What formerly was provided by an individual leader, will be provided by the process, the Creative Interchange Process. We call this the Creative Interchange Leadership: “The [Creative Interchange] Process IS the Leader!”


Figure 6 Fourth Paradigm: The Creative Interchange Leadership

As the idea of leadership evolves, nothing useful is left behind. This means, for example, that the “ancient” idea of leadership (dominance) is still alive and well today, but only to the extent that it still serves useful purposes. Instead of thinking that each paradigm in leadership ceases to exist as it is completely replaced by the next one, it is more helpful to think of every new paradigm contains some of the elements of the previous one and building something new on them, using the older elements as a base.

Table 1 summarizes this picture of leadership as an evolving set of ideas.


tabel 1

Figure 7 summarizes these evolving sets of ideas:


Figure 7 : The distance between Leader and Followers

As been said a new paradigm tend to come along because of some limitation in the actual paradigm, this means that the actual idea. has outlived its usefulness, not solves the actual problems any more.

“Every paradigm will, in the process of encountering new problems find problems it cannot solve. And those unsolvable problems provide the catalyst for triggering the paradigm shift.”

Joel A. Barker

In the case of leadership, for example, the idea of domination, as many a would-be tyrant has discovered, is limited in its power to truly motivate people. Followers often merely comply to avoid punishment, and the quality of their work suffers greatly as a result. To address this limitation, the idea of influence is developed. It builds on dominance, keeping what is useful (such as the leader as a focal point of decision making to avoid confusion and conflict) but trying to overcome its limitations, using positive motivation to gain a better quality of effort.

In the same way, the actual paradigm in leadership – creating inner commitment to common goals – addresses the limitations in the idea of influence. Influence is limited by the leader’s capacity to create true motivation through appealing to external needs and rewards alone. The notion of common goals adds the idea that motivation is strengthened if people work toward a common goal that includes their own goals; internal, intrinsic motivation is called into play. The role of the leader becomes that of managing a process of fashioning and articulating common goals and gaining commitment to them.

The idea of influence is not thrown out, because the leader often uses influence appeals to reason and feelings in the process, but influence is put in service of a larger idea. The idea of influence is thus augmented and its limitations addressed.

The actual paradigm in leadership, then, is a complex and layered construction that has built up over the course of history This layered meaning makes it complex and hard to define, but it also makes it a versatile, useful tool that can be employed in a variety of forms.

 “Our current problems cannot be solved by using the same way of thinking

that has created them”

Albert Einstein

In time, those forms wear out; old solutions become problems themselves as the world changes. If we wish to think about how leadership might be changing now and in the near future, we need to ask in what way modern leadership – the idea of gaining internal commitment to common goals – might be outliving its usefulness. As we learn more about the diversity of ideas among people who are increasingly entrenched in special interests, the limitations of modern leadership may be found in the very idea of common goals.

As the world becomes more connected through global transportation and communication and a greater diversity of cultures and points of view are being brought to bear as people work together, common goals are becoming increasingly difficult to fashion and articulate from a single, unified point of view. But more than difficulty is involved. Perhaps it is less useful and effective to define goals from a unified, common perspective.

As the idea of leadership has evolved to include wider diversity of voice (especially with the modern idea of creating inner commitment), it has also created the potential for confusion as voices don’t seem to be speaking the same language. This often results in much more than heated arguments at business meetings and a polarizing of sides; it also results in a sense of not even being in the same community,

and it can breed paralysis. If people turn to the leader (the CEO) and expect this person to create visions of the future that somehow take all the points of view into account, they are usually disappointed and decry the lack of good leadership.

If the views of individuals who see the world in significantly different ways are to be transformed from self-interest to a concern for a larger social good, as the modern idea calls for, then the larger social good must be conceived in highly differentiated, not highly unified, terms. It is just this kind of situation I have in mind when I suggest that limitations in the idea of common goals may be calling forth a new way to think about leadership.

In a world (or organization) operating with multiple ways of understanding the world, common goals need to be expressed in multiple forms of thought and value, multiple forms of meaning. The individual leader is not well equipped to do this. Any model of leadership in which a person is understood to be the leader and others are understood as followers may not be adequate to the complex demands of a such a world. What seems to be needed is a form of leadership that actually engages differences and sustains them in creative and useful ways rather than seeking their resolution through conflict, suppressing, or compromise. The only way to do this and make the outcome synergistic (1+1>3) is, in my humble opinion, living Creative Interchange[2] during Crucial Dialogues[3]

Is there evidence in the practice of leadership that such an approach is actually being called for? In the following section, I offer some examples of organizational practice that seem to do so. These are examples of people in organizations acting as if they think about and understand leadership in a new light.

[1] Senge, Peter M. The leader’s new work: building learning organizations. In: Sloan Management review, 12, 1, 1990, pp. 7-13

[2] Roels Johan. Creative wisselwerking New business paradigma als hoeksteen van veiligheidszorg en de lerende organisatie. Leuven-Apeldoorn: Garant, 2001.

[3] Roels, Johan. Cruciale dialogen. Het dagdagelijks beleven van ‘creatieve wisselwerking’. Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Garant, 2012