Great Man Leadership Theory

The Great Man Theory states that leaders cannot be made but they are leaders by birth. Let’s read further to study the Great Man Theory in detail.

1. Introduction


The above quote reflects different great leaders in the history who witnessed the victory under their leadership as well as relates the outcome of one of the famous leadership theory.

Great Man Theory: The theory is based on the built-in characteristics or traits of leadership in an individual which clears if an individual is a successful leader by birth or not. This theory ignores other factors like education, experience, the behavior of an individual to be a great leader, and suggests that these are not required to be as a leader and can only shape leadership abilities.

The Great man theory is based on the belief that leaders cannot be made and they are leaders by birth only. A myth of this theory is that different situations or circumstances cause the rise of a great leader. It also states that leadership abilities are natural and they cannot be developed. Extraordinary leaders possess all the qualities of successful leadership and also the role of a leader is challenging and demanding due to big responsibilities. This theory treats leaders as heroes who provide others with the insights of right and wrong as well as these heroes bring change in society by great inventions and by encouraging their followers.

2. History

The great man theory was formulated in the 19th century and the concept is mainly attributed to a historian Thomas Carlyle. The theory explains how history was affected by the influence of great men also called Heroes. These heroes or great men are highly capable and are different people, who have different superior characteristics like highly intellectual, courage like heroes, etc., and due to this, they can leave a significant historical effect.

The behavior analysis mainly of militarians was done and based on the analysis this theory was conceptualized. The logic was also there behind its name as Great Man. As the 1800s century was commanded solely by men for authoritative positions and there was no such woman who could hold such type of position at that time, so the theory is considered as a great man theory.

One strong reason behind the rise of this theory is that very fewer leadership opportunities were there for people having little social status in the 19th century and research was based on the leaders who were already successful in their domains.

Thomas Carlyle further stated that successful leaders were a combination of divine inspiration and the right characteristics. Thomas also defined the Great Man concept in his various lectures which were based on heroes and heroism. He further published articles of Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History.

In these, he briefed on the great man’s leadership and provided analysis of these heroes of history and their influences like Shakespeare, Napoleon, Muhammad, Luther, etc. Among supporters of Great Man theory was Frederick Adams Woods who was an American scholar. He also described different 12th-century rulers of Western Europe in his publication ‘The Influence of Monarchs’ in which he specified their influence on historical events.

3. Assumptions

There are two main assumptions on which Great Man theory is based.

A. Leaders cannot be made and are born only.

As per this assumption, the following aspects are considered:

  • Leaders are god gifted to the world. They have divine attributes that reflect their actions.
  • Individuals cannot be trained to become a leader and to have those characteristics of a great leader.
  • Leaders have sufficient inbuilt traits and abilities to lead and their success.
  • There is no relation of behavior or situational aspects in the leadership qualities and effectiveness of a leader.
  • Moreover, education and experience also cannot rise or increase leadership qualities.

B. Great leaders will come into existence as the need arises.

This assumption is based on the myth that if the appropriate situation demands, great leaders will rise.

4. Broader Perspective

Great Man theory is focused on born leaders. It suggests that leaders have all traits of leadership by birth i.e. Intelligence, confidence, communication skills, charisma, etc. Writer Thomas Carlyle stated that the leadership qualities are inherent and effective leaders cannot be developed, they have leadership traits by birth. As leadership abilities were demonstrated only by men at that time so it is named as Great Man Theory.

Though with time, it was considered as the great person theory due to the existence of great women leaders later like Queen Elizabeth.

Leaders in this theory are depicted as Heroes, meant to rise as a leader when the need arises. It simply says that one cannot be trained for strong leadership as possesses certain traits and abilities to become a leader. Leadership traits are only god gifted to few. This theory also supported certain myths like effective leaders will come into existence as per situation or need arises. Few great leaders of history had certain unique qualities that made them a successful leader in their respective areas such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander, Napoleon, etc. These have some natural leadership qualities that distinguished them from others.

These people never received any leadership training and never got an opportunity to polish their leadership skills.

The theory defines there are different characteristics of great leaders by birth that distinguish them from general leaders i.e. intelligence, courage, intuition, activeness, etc. These are in-built to great leaders and inherited from family i.e. father to son by generations. Moreover, these characteristics are either present in an individual or absent. This theory relates to the leadership style of ancient times of Greek and Romans. At that time also different personal characteristics were responsible for successful leadership. These leaders didn’t get any training on leadership so their success was due to some divine factors.

5. Practical Implications

History is full of examples of great and successful leaders who created history with their exclusive leadership traits or characteristics. Leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi are there to name a few.

Abraham Lincoln was the famous 16th U.S. president. He was a great and successful leader. During the civil war in the U.S.A., he protected the union and initiated the process to end slavery in the nation. His decisions had a great effect on the betterment of the social and economic welfare of U.S.A.

Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian is recognized as an effective leader of the 20th century. He led the nation and people through non-violent civil resistance for freedom. Under his leadership, India got independence in 1947. He was a true leader and a great man who became an inspiration for further leaders.

So these leaders are seen as natural born leaders who have some inherent qualities required to be effective leaders as both of them never went under any leadership training. Both had god gifted leadership traits.

In today’s scenario also, different effective leaders are generally considered having the required qualities naturally that are inherited. Like different executives at the top level, captains in sports who led a team have qualities that make them different from others. Most of the time a son of an owner of a company is the one who leads the company further for its success as the general psychology of people says that leadership is in blood or inherited. So up to some extent, human psychology still believes that successful leaders already have required leadership characteristics.

6. Criticism

The Great Man theory is criticized by different writers and researchers.

  • Herbert Spencer was one of the criticizers of the theory. According to his critics in 1896, great leaders can be looked at as only products of the society in which they were born and brought up also they have an impact on their social environment. So society is the one that has a contribution in shaping these as great men and which resulted in giving further shape to the society by them.
  • According to Novelist Tolstoy in 2010, the relevance of the Great Man theory is based on imagination. In actual, these great people are slaves of history by believing as divine intervention.
  • In-fact modern researchers, scientists also strongly rejected the great man concept. According to them, there is no scientific proof of the concept of theory and the born leader concept is just an imagination. Cherry in 2017 stated that great men can be developed also with the right education, experience, and by empowering them.

7. Significance

  • Different qualities and skills like courage, aggressiveness, charming personality, enthusiasm, activeness, etc. cannot be taught to the leaders. Different leaders like Alexander, Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon, and many more had leadership traits by birth and through which they succeeded in their respective domains as a leader.
  • The Great Man theory created fundamentals of leadership and characteristics of leaders, based on which further leadership theories are developed.
  • This theory identified great leaders of that time and their characteristics.

8. Limitations

The biggest issue of Great Man theory is that not everyone has inherited leadership traits to become a successful leader. If the concept of the theory is true, then all people with required leadership traits by birth could have assigned leadership roles. But that’s not the scenario. Many factors create an impact on the leadership activities of a leader. Behavior, characteristics of leader and subordinates, situations, etc. collaborate in deciding the leadership styles of a leader as well as its effectiveness.

The limitations of Great Man theory are:

  • This theory is based on the blind faith of great leaders that happened in history. It only looked at the change in history by those leaders and there is no insight into the selfish motives and their real actions behind the change.
  • There is no great logic behind the theory. It is based on myth and assumptions.
  • This theory didn’t emphasize real heroes who had an important contribution to actual events happened under the leadership of great leaders. Link in the case of Abraham Lincoln who is famous for successfully leading the civil war in the U.S., he had a little role to play and other people who fight are not considered.
  • This theory considered only men as great leaders and avoided women having the potential to be a leader.
  • The theory didn’t consider childhood and upbringing of great leaders of that time and ignored the impact of environment, culture, and society on them in their development.
  • There are no scientific reasons or bases of this theory. Moreover, the concept of born leaders doesn’t match today’s complex business environment.
  • The Great Man theory is not able to specify the reason for different leaders having similar inborn qualities of leader still few are successful and others fail. So it means that there is no surety that one can be a great leader despite having all leadership qualities.

9. Conclusions

To conclude, the Great Man Theory is a born leader theory who is born to lead as they have inherent characteristics. The theory was criticized a lot due to the avoidance of impact of social environment on leadership and over-focus on the abilities of a leader. This theory generated the interest of researchers in discovering more insights into leadership and a leader. Despite lots of criticism, this theory maintained its status for the guidance of leadership until the mid of the 20th century. Further the emergence and growth of behavioral science, leadership is shaped as a scientific study later on that can be acquired. Leaders, irrespective of by birth or made as a leader, who don’t have leadership qualities have to undergo leadership development training by engaging in the culture, environment and with people around them to become great leaders. Also, it is not necessary for a leader to be successful in all areas as he/she might have expertise in one particular domain to which he/she belongs to.

However, supporters of great man theory still believe that great leaders have god gifted qualities and these qualities cannot be gained.

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