The Great Man Theory of Leadership

This article discusses the Great Man Theory of Leadership, one of the first leadership theories to be formed.

Overview of the Great Man Theory of Leadership

The great man theory of leadership originated in the 19th century and asserts that the success of leaders is affiliated with the traits that they were born with (also see Trait Theory). Every leader is born with the necessary traits and attributes that cause them to lead effectively. So, essentially, great leaders are predetermined heroes who are born to lead.

Origins of the Great Man Theory of Leadership

The founder of the Great Man Theory was Thomas Carlyle, and he and his contemporaries gained recognition for the theory in the early 20th century. Their work was published in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which told the story of the world through the biographies of great men that led during different historical periods. As Carlyle himself put it:

No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.

Thomas Carlyle

Dissecting this quote a little bit further is that the history of the world is told through the perspective of great men who were born with the traits that allowed them to lead and allowed them to become great men, in order to shape the rest of the world.

Leaders are born with leadership qualities

The Great Man Theory asserts that everybody is born with certain traits and characteristics and that great men are born with the characteristics and attributes that allow them to become a leader. So if you’re not born with these characteristics, you cannot lead effectively.

The characteristics required to become a great leader are not set in stone. They could be integrity, confidence, vision, communication, empathy etc. Some studies have attempted to pinpoint exactly what the most important traits of great leaders are. But for the purposes of the Great Man Theory, it’s enough to understand that it is a combination of certain characteristics that allowed certain individuals to be great men.

History books tell us that the earliest forms of leader were those who achieved their position due to their birthright. For example, monarchs and emperors are all part of a privileged bloodline. Those who were not born into leadership were born into the lower social classes, and they did not have the opportunities or abilities to practice any sort of leadership role.

This added to the belief that leadership is an inherent ability since only those who were born into their position were regarded as a leader. Although theorists, and members of society at the time did not have much to compare to in regards to leadership. If you look, throughout all of history, this theory is still prevalent. So although we can pick holes, when it was first originated, it still makes sense.

Looking back at history, there are cases where leaders were not born into their position.

Examples of someone who would fit this category include Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. It could be argued that they were born with the traits that allowed them to become great leaders – they did not have any leaders to learn from, especially since they were born going against societal norms in the time where they led. Where would they have learned these abilities from? They had nobody to compare to. There has to be some sort of natural ability that allows people to lead effectively. They were born already determined to be a great man who was going to lead. And if you really think about it, it does make sense that they were born with some sort of natural ability.

So now we’re going to dissect the theory a little bit. So the theory can really be broken down into two main points, that great leaders are born possessing traits that enabled them to rise and lead. And kind of explaining that even further is that great leaders are born with a natural ability to lead.

In the past leadership training was not a thing. Everyone who had to lead had a natural ability for it. Certain people were better suited for being leaders than others since they were born with those right characteristics. Society and the world have already determined that they are going to be a great man who will lead.

A second point is that great leaders arise when a need for them is great. Someone who is born with the ability to lead may not even realise they have that ability until they are needed. When the time is right, a great man would take control of the situation with ease and be able to lead others toward what they viewed to be the right direction. Leadership characteristics could potentially remain dormant for a person’s whole life, but when needed they will have an uncanny natural ability to lead.

If this theory is true, it would bring some more truth to religion, rather than leaders, being people who are all elected and experienced and educated leaders would be a gift from God to our world. So this would kind of help prove why those such as Jesus and Muhammad had such an impact on the face of the world because they were born, already determined that they were going to lead. And it would mean that not everyone can be a leader. So those who were born with the gift of leadership would be the only ones able to attain greatness. And it would also mean that above all else, the traits of a leader were given to someone would be the qualities that were most necessary. So without these traits, you just can’t lead. These traits are absolutely crucial. So here we have some evidence to support the theory.

So great leaders carry traits that no other man can be taught naturally. An example of these great leaders would be like the likes of Winston Churchill, who led England throughout world war two leading people to an event that has never occurred before that can’t be taught. So Winston Churchill was born with the ability to lead. You could not World War Two was such a, an event that the world has never seen before. The world was so divided at that point. And obviously, with World War One, the division was a little less, you know, severe and serious. So Winston Churchill, just kind of his powers remained dormant up until World War Two, and then we’re not drugged, he was able to lead England.

Another good example would be Gandhi, who we kind of touched on earlier. But he led India to a civil rights movement bigger than anything the world has ever seen. with little to no experience in leading and having been born with this country already against him. Gandhi used his ability of leadership to change the way protesting was done globally. So Gandhi was really the world his country was not rooting for him. And still, he was born with those characteristics that allowed him to lead. So here we do have some evidence against the theory because he can pick holes into anything.

So at the time, the theory was first introduced, a noted philosopher Herbert Spencer argued that the great man theory was childish, primitive, and unscientific. He believed that leaders were simply products of their environment. He advocated that before a great man can remake his society, the society has to make him. Therefore social history, economic history, and political history play many factors in determining if one is a great man or not. So he kind of recognise that every leader at the time when the theory was first introduced, was born into their power. So he thought it kind of just didn’t make any sense because they were just born into that family. They were not born with any characteristics that allowed them to lead. And you can also kind of think about how just because you’re born into a leadership role, does not mean that you lead effectively.

We could kind of think about the French Revolution with this one, with Louis XVI who was born into royalty. But obviously, he did not lead effectively since an entire country was plotting against him. So, some more evidence against the theory would be that leadership requires practice, it cannot all be built upon the traits of someone born with it. Because even great men learn how to lead based off of other people’s actions and how society was at the time.

So what this means is that, for example, if you were to think of, let’s say, a king and a prince, so obviously, the prince is next in line to become king one day. And throughout his childhood throughout his life, he wouldn’t have been observing his father, possibly not even meaning to learn, but he would learn things like what not to do or what to do. So he definitely learned stuff, although it wasn’t, you know, widely recognised as learning, there was definitely some learning going on, just because of how those people born with the position grew up. And even those who were born into positions of leadership were not born with the qualities that allowed them to lead.

So this kind of what I just said, they watched those around them in those positions, and they change how they acted as a leader based off of decisions. So according to bottom made by Vince Lombardi is that leaders are made not born, they are made by very hard effort, which is the price which almost pay to achieve any goal that is worth. So how does this theory relate to education? If this theory were to be true, then teaching and developing leadership skills would be irrelevant and insignificant. This would mean that students would not be able to gain the skills of a leader making it so it would not be beneficial to teach those who are incapable of being leaders to be leaders. So that means that if this is true, this class that we’re all taking right now is a huge waste of time, because can’t learn to lead.

And also kind of an all at least at my school student council kind of focuses on also teaching kids to be leaders within their school community. So it would not be beneficial either. If kids had to be born with these traits and these abilities, then a lot of classes would be deemed pointless, and would not exist. And if this theory were to be false, then teaching a developing leadership skill should be an important part of our education system. And it kind of already is, so anyone can learn to be a leader.

So it would be important to teach everyone so that they can reach their maximum potential. So now how this theory relates to business, If true, the great man theory shows that those who are born with the traits of great man are destined to be a successful businessman. So with those natural born tyrants, they’re going to be their employees, they’re going to manage everything and bring the company more success.

So if the theory were to be true than the average man would not be able to learn how to run a business and their success would be limited. And now if this theory were false, then anyone who has the right determination and confidence can be successful businessmen, anyone can be groomed and taught how to correctly lead a business to success, they can learn to lead a company’s employees increase the company’s productivity and efficiency. So if this theory is false, then an average man would be able to educate themselves on how to do that, their success would have no limits. This whole theory kind of puts everyone’s success limited, because if you’re just not born with those qualities, you’re just not able to do anything that involves leadership in the slightest, because it will not be effective, it will not work without these qualities.

And now how it relates to society. So the great man theory, if it were proven to be true, then who we elect and choose to be our society leaders will change. The game theory suggests that those who have the skills to develop our society, so with those traits, they would be the ones who we elect, they might not have a good education, they might not have any experience at all. But those would be the ones that we wanted to elect. So regardless of anything else, people would willingly elect people, as long as they have the traits of a great man. So if this were to be proven false, then the way we elect sighted leaders will be the same.

So those who are most educated and hold the most experience are best qualified to lead they will be elected, regardless of if they have the traits of a great man or not. So in today’s society, those who are elected are considered to have the best education and experience they really have to work their way up. So it’s a great man theory spouse, then it doesn’t matter if the person has the traits of a great man when it comes to electing a societal leader. So In summary, the main three cannot be proven to be true or false as of the moment, this means that there’s not a definitive limit to anyone’s learning ability, anyone can end up being a great leader. Until this theory is proven to be true, everyone should be taught on how to lead, lead, and everybody should be given a chance to lead as well. So now we have a couple of reflection questions. So please post your responses in the discussion forum and apply to at least one other classmates answers. So why not? What do you think? Is there some truth to this theory explaining detail why or why not?

How do you believe our personality and attributes are formed?

Are they formed at birth?

Or do they develop?

And do you believe that everyone is born with a purpose for the world?