The great man theory arose during the 19th century thanks in part to historian Thomas Carlyle. The great man theory argues that great leaders are born and not made because they possess certain inherited traits.
Understanding the great man theory
Carlyle suggested world history was nothing more than a collection of biographies belonging to powerful men – or heroes as he called them. These men included Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, and Julius Caesar, among others. Importantly, Carlyle believed these individuals were born with natural abilities and talents that made them effective leaders.
Early research into successful leadership appeared to support the theory. At the time, many leaders were aristocrats who attained their status through birthright alone. Individuals with less social status tended to receive fewer opportunities, which reinforced the idea that leadership was inherent and innate.
The great man theory is also based on the assumption that great leaders can arise when the need for leadership is great. Essentially, the theory implies that individuals with power deserve to lead because of their unique set of inherited traits.
The six archetypes of the great man theory
Carlyle developed six archetypes of heroes according to their role in shaping history:
- The divine hero – or any leader perceived to be a God. Carlyle frequented mentioned figures in Greek and Norse mythology such as Odin, Thor, and Zeus.
- The prophet hero – or leaders considered to be an envoy or messenger for God. Jesus and Moses are the most obvious examples.
- The poet hero – or heroes that transcend time, such as thinkers, warriors, politicians, and philosophers. Carlyle saw William Shakespeare as the archetypal poet hero.
- The priest hero – these are heroes seen as revolutionaries that change the status quo, such as Scottish theologian John Knox and German professor, author, and composer Martin Luther.
- The king hero – or commanders of loyal men who bring order to the world, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Oliver Cromwell.
- The man of letters hero – these inspiring leaders describe what man is capable of achieving using sincerity, genius, and originality. Examples included writer Samuel Johnson and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Opposition to the great man theory
In his work entitled The Study of Sociology, sociologist Herbert Spencer argued leaders were the product of the society in which they lived. Specifically, he suggested 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.”
Critics of the great man theory also posit that simply possessing great leadership qualities does not guarantee great leadership. If leadership was an inherent trait, then every person who possessed it should eventually find themselves in a position of power. Today, common sense says that an individual needs ambition and drive to realize their full potential.
Modern leadership research has also challenged Carlyle’s original theory. While he believed that masculine traits were a good determinant of success, feminine traits have also been proven to be important. Furthermore, leadership is now seen as more of a science that can be learned and nurtured.
- The great man theory argues that great leaders are born and not made because they possess certain inherited traits.
- The great man theory was developed by historian Thomas Carlyle, who argued history was a collection of the biographies of powerful men. He called these men heroes and created six archetypes to categorize the leaders of his day.
- The great man theory has been debunked by modern research. For one, an individual with leadership qualities will not become a leader without ambition. Furthermore, leadership is now considered a science that can be learned with a blend of masculine and feminine traits.
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