The Great Man Theory of 1840 | Leadership History

Editor’s Note: Original blog published on Jun 29, 2017

Leadership has always been a point of fascination for society and people. No matter which era it is, we still wait for a leader to set the motion. Throughout the years, leadership has become a belief changing with the community's mindset. What makes people free? What gives them the freedom to dream, to walk, to be rightful and equal. Therefore, humankind's tenaciousness over leadership evolution and revolution would never cease to exist.

While thinking about some of the legendary leaders that intrigues me is not the massive uprisings or grandiose scale wars- It's the fateful encounters that led to the real changes. Every leadership style is relatively unique from the other with the realities that transcend the leaders from their predecessors. Therefore, instead of wasting both your time and mine with a long-winded introduction that is unnecessary for this post, I'll save you the trouble by starting with the discussion.

Even though many creators and philosophers debate on their exclusive discoveries of what it means to be a leader, only six of the theories are widespread and considered timeless. 

  1. Great Man Theory
  2. Trait Theory
  3. Behavioral Theories
  4. Contingency Theories
  5. Transactional Theories
  6. Transformational Theories

Great Man Theory (1840)

Fallen from the graces of sensible minds, in those days, leadership was thought to be more one-dimensional. No matter how the stories were told and lived, the conclusion was only one - 

"You can't be a leader unless and until you are born with the ambiance of greater personality, charisma, intelligence, persuasiveness. Furthermore, the leadership qualities are gifted or inherited, marking the people who inherited them as exceptions. No matter the group or community, such exceptional leaders find themselves, they will always be recognized as leaders for who they are (not necessarily for what they do)." 

Looking at the leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Otto von Bismarck, Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte- it is not too surprising if you conclude the same. These leaders shaped reality. They were the firebrands- who shouldered the destinies of thousands yet came out victorious. Among them, the legendary vigor that I am mesmerized with is Joan of Arc- The Maid of Orléans, whose individualistic leadership removed the rose-colored glasses, broke the so-called social constructs of women and left the stories of dignity, pride, and authenticity.

There is no doubt that these people had high ambitions together with clear visions. Thus counting them as extraordinary beings (unlike us) won't be something far from the truth. Before coming to this development, I had planned to be a critique throughout this post. I mean, who doesn't love to comment. It's easy to prove something wrong and point your doubtful eyes. And I was about to collect those overlooked chunks of fallacies and disappointments revolving around this big starry idea. However, I felt there is something more. Some queries that are tugging my mind- 

Assuming these peaceful days become war-deranged, what will I do? My non-happening, calm life, suddenly some lunatics break that gear making everything upside-down. How will I live? I am a woman like her. Will I be able to take a weapon and fight for myself, for the country, exactly how she did? Imageries like these drag me down from the throne, where I am supposed to be the predator, not the one to be hunted down.

I again remembered Thomas Carlyle's (The genius mastermind) lines, 

Thus if the man Odin himself has vanished utterly, there is this vast Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of his People. For this Odin once admitted to being God, we can understand well that the entire Scandinavian Scheme of Nature, or dim No-scheme, whatever it might before have been, would now begin to develop itself altogether differently, and grow thenceforth in a new manner. What this Odin saw into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the whole Teutonic People laid to heart and carried forward. His way of thought became their way of thinking:--such, under the new conditions, is the History of every great thinker still. In gigantic confused lineaments, like some enormous camera-obscura shadow thrown upwards from the dead deeps of the Past, and covering the whole Northern Heaven, is not that Scandinavian Mythology in some sort the Portraiture of this man Odin? The large image of his natural face, legible or not legible there, expanded and confused in that manner! Ah, Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in vain. The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.

I genuinely feel tremendous gratitude to Thomas Carlyle, who proposed the Great man theory in his book "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History," where he compared a wide array of heroes. If it's not for him, the evolution would have never started. But I yet to be fully convinced of this approach. Why?

Now and then there comes a discovery or idea that does the impossible. But without rationalized explanation somehow it becomes a fallacy. Unlike today's general populace, the great men were thought to be the real miracle of God. Unless you live to this date, one would never question the rationality of this approach. 

My contradictory statements opposing the theory start with Herbert Spencer. Eleven years after Carlyle's book was published, Herbert Spencer- a pioneer of sociology and social evolutionist quoted:

"You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the secular state into which that race has slowly grown... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

The Great Man Theory dates back to old Roman, Greek days. Where heroes, kings, were considered to possess divinity that transformed them into miracle makers. The theory disdains the belief of - achieving greatness through knowledge cultivation, hard work, and training by arguing strongly on this, Spencer continued to expand his approach:

"Rather than great men influencing society, a process of evolution shapes the "aggregate of social conditions." For when the external environment changes, it causes changes in human behavior, which in turn changes human institutions (social systems) for them to become consistent with new human behavior – over time, all of this has become the "aggregate of social conditions."

British historian Baron Macaulay, who viewed Carlyle's approach as a crack in the evolutionary intelligence and added:

"It is the age that forms the man, not the man that forms the age … it is evident … that without Columbus, America would [still] have been discovered. Society indeed has its great men and its little men, as the earth has its mountains and its valleys."

So, let me clear the assumptions:

  1. There is nothing like inborn talent. 
  2. There is no proper scientific evidence about the genetic inheritance of heroism from father to son or from ancestor to descendant.
  3. Even with all the great qualities, it's not assured that you would be a great leader.
  4. Leadership qualities can be acquired through isolated observation, learning, and practice.

Despite the many opposing arguments, the Great Man Theory remained popular until the mid-20th century. Even now, it would not be too surprising to find many minds agree to this discovery.

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