Bass' theory of leadership notes there are three basic ways to explain how people become leaders (Bass, Bass, 2008; Stogdill, 1989; Bass, 1990):
- A crisis or important event may cause a person to rise to the occasion, which brings out extraordinary leadership qualities in an ordinary person. This is the Great Event or Great Man Theory.
- Some personality traits may lead people naturally into leadership roles. This is the Trait Theory.
- People can choose to become leaders. People can learn leadership skills. This is the Transformational or Process Leadership Theory. It is the most widely accepted theory today and the premise on which this guide is based.
The first theory, The Great Man, was one of the first theories of leadership development and perhaps might explain leadership for a small number of people. A big event occurs and an individual takes charge and moves the direction of a country, movement, war, etc. For example Martin Luther King Jr. moves the Civil Rights moment to the edge of change and President Lincoln directs the course of the Civil War.
The Great Man Theory drew attention to the specific qualities of these leaders and attempted to explain leadership in terms of personality and character, thus the Trait Theory was born. Two questions were generally asked:
- What traits distinguish leaders from other people?
- What is the extent of the difference?
This was the primary theory of leadership until the 1940s. While traits remain an important part of leadership theory today, it has moved beyond this original concept—Transformational Theory.
Transformational can best be compared to Transactional. A transactional leader works within the framework whereas a transformational leaders works to change the framework. For example, President Buchanan was content to stand-by and allow the union to fall apart, while President Lincoln stepped in and held it together. Thus President Buchanan has a consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst Presidents, while Lincoln is just the opposite.
Buchanan worked within the framework of his time while Lincoln strived to change that framework. Change normally takes skills and knowledge, which can be taught, thus while the Transformational Leaders have good traits, they also strive to learn and grow.