Great Man Theory
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Great Man Theory

As quoted by Thomas Carlyle “The history of the world is but the biography of a great man”. Meaning that it’s the contribution of individual leaders, that has given shape to the course of history. The epitome of greatness, ‘Alexander the Great’, is most suited to be an opener for this article on great man theory. He was born in 356 BC. He ruled Macedonia at the very young age of 20 as his father was assassinated. He has been known to build one of the largest empires to date, that stretched from Greece to Egypt and into present-day Pakistan. He was known for his leadership and determination in the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. 

Historian Thomas Carlyle popularised the concept of the great man theory in the 19th century. He said that it’s the exceptional men’s action that made history and those exceptional men were referred to as great men. This theory tries to pull our attention to the thoughts that people are born with the qualities of an extraordinary leader. They have the vision, the abilities and the zeal that makes them different from the rest of the crowd. Such people have the magic to bring change and create history through their leadership and actions. 

This theory tries to emphasize the contribution of some well-known great leaders like Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela or Napoleon Bonaparte. The great man theory came across a lot of criticism for ignoring other parameters having an oversimplified narrative and ignoring the other broader societal and structural factors into action.

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Origin of the Great Man Theory 

The origin of this theory took place as a historical or philosophical thought. A famous Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle is known to have introduced this concept worldwide with the help of his book titled “On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Hero in History”. Great man theory rapidly emerged when there were some political and social changes taking place and people were inquisitive about knowing and understanding the dynamics behind such changes. It was during the 19th century that people showed a collectivistic interest in understanding the role of individual agency in historical events which led to the onset of such concepts and historical transformations like the Great Man theory. 

Key components of the Great Man theory focus on traits and characteristics
  • Traits commonly linked with great leaders: Charisma, intelligence, courage, decisiveness, vision and determination are some of the innate traits these qualities make those personalities different, from the rest of the crowd and make them inspirational leaders. 
  • Innate leadership qualities: The entire emphasis of the theory is on proving that an extraordinary individual is born with all these qualities rather than acquiring them through experience or education. 

Read More: Leadership Style And Its Psychological Impact On Employee’s Well-Being

Impact on Historical Events 

The Great Man theory says that people with such exceptional innate qualities make a considerable impact on Historical events. They can be referred to as catalysts for change, leading the population through transit phases and shaping the events that are later dated in history. As per this theory, people who are born leaders have the charisma and power to direct the nation to the path of change and remarkable transformation. They have the power to lead inspirational movements. Their actions have been known to have an impact on the development of the nation and civilization. 

Modern Perspective on Leadership 

  1. Situational leadership: This theory as a modern Perspective tries to draw attention to the thought that effective leadership is not just based on one’s inherent tracts but rather on adaptive behaviour, the ability to adapt leadership styles as per the situation. Great leaders are flexible and open to novelty and can adjust their ideology and style based on the readiness and capabilities of their followers.
  2. Transformational leadership: This leadership theory tries to emphasize inspiring and pushing the followers to work on achieving their best version, performance and personal growth. Readers possess a vision, charisma and ability to create a sense of shared purpose with the team members. Such leaders try to promote innovation, practice a positive organizational culture and push and encourage their followers to attain their full potential. 
  3. Authentic leadership: This leadership theory focuses on the importance of genuineness, transparency and ethical behaviour. Authentic leaders often prove to be true to themselves, and trustworthy to others. They are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, high on morals are good decision makers. 
  4. Transactional leadership: this leadership theory tries to focus upon the give-and-take relationship between the leaders and their followers. Leader puts clear expectations as a benchmark, provide rewards for the team when they perform well and establish penalties for non-compliance. 
  5. Servant leadership: this leadership theory tries to emphasize the leader’s role as a servant to their team. Such leaders put their team’s needs ahead of their own needs. They believe in creating a supportive environment for growth and success

These Modern Perspectives are built depending on the situation, the kind of work, the will to work in the team, and many such factors. 

Read More: Signs You are Born to be a Leader, According to Psychology

Relevance of Great Man Theory today 

Although great man theory has faced a lot of criticism, there have been examples where it can be seen to work well. 

  • Iconic leaders: Personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr have been known as great examples suitable for the great man theory, they truly were born to lead and bring revolutionary changes. 
  • Entrepreneurial success: In the business sector, we come across leading, creative youngsters who have the persona to build themselves from scratch and attain great heights and they have done so. 
  • Political leadership: In the political arena, you may find several charismatic leaders who have an unmatchable personality and impact on the public that they capture the attention and faith in no time and lead movements or nations. 

Read More: What is Contingency Theory?

Some famous personalities like Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, and Jacinda Ardern are the best examples to discuss this. Though we have listed a tonne of examples of leaders that fit the great man theory, it is important to note that present-day leadership styles are equally worthy because of present-day work set-up and focus on a holistic view, considering a wide spectrum of factors that go beyond inherent qualities.

Reference +
  • Kendra Cherry, Mse. (2023c, September 6). How does the great man theory of leadership hold up?. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-great-man-theory-of-leadership-2795311
  • Great man theory. Great Man Theory – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/great-man-theory
  • Carlyle, freud, and the great man theory more fully considered | request PDF. (n.d.-c). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276348276_Carlyle_Freud_and_the_Great_Man_Theory_more_fully_considered

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