The Great Man Theory of Leadership

Great man leadership theories
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Have you ever heard the phrase, "Great leaders are born, not made"? This quote sums up the basic tenet of the Great Man theory of leadership, which suggests that the capacity for leadership is innate. According to this theory, you're either a natural-born leader or you're not. The term "Great Man" was used because, at the time, ​leadership was thought of primarily as a male quality, especially in terms of military leadership.

History of the Great Man Theory

The great man theory of leadership became popular during the 19th century. The mythology behind some of the world's most famous leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Alexander the Great, helped contribute to the notion that great leaders are born and not made.

In many examples, it seems as if the right man for the job seems to emerge almost magically to take control of a situation and lead a group of people into safety or success. Historian Thomas Carlyle also had a major influence on this theory of leadership. He stated, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." According to Carlyle, effective leaders are those gifted with divine inspiration and the right characteristics.

Some of the earliest research on leadership looked at people who were already successful leaders. These individuals often included aristocratic rulers who achieved their position through birthright. Because people of a lesser social status had fewer opportunities to practice and achieve leadership roles, it contributed to the idea that leadership is an inherent ability.

Even today, people often describe prominent leaders as having the right qualities or personality for the position. This implies that inherent characteristics are what make these people effective leaders.

Arguments Against the Theory

Sociologist Herbert Spencer suggested that the leaders were products of the society in which they lived. In "The Study of Sociology," Spencer wrote, "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 social state into which that race has slowly grown…Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

One of the key problems with the Great Man theory of leadership is that not all people who possess the so-called natural leadership qualities actually become great leaders. If leadership was simply an inborn quality, then all people who possess the ​necessary traits would eventually find themselves in leadership roles.

Research has instead found that leadership is a surprisingly complex subject and that numerous factors influence how successful a particular leader may or may not be. Characteristics of the group, the leader in power, and the situation all interact to determine what type of leadership is needed and the effectiveness of this leadership.

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Article Sources
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  1. Spector BA. Carlyle, Freud, and the Great Man Theory more fully consideredLeadership. 2015;12(2):250-260. doi:10.1177/1742715015571392.

  2. Spencer, H. The Study of Sociology. Appleton, 1874.​

  3. Yukl G. Effective leadership behavior: What we know and what questions need more attentionAcad Manag Perspect. 2012;26(4):66-85. doi:10.5465/amp.2012.0088.

Additional Reading
  • Carlyle T. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother, 1988.

  • Hirsch ED. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.