What is The Great Man Theory? The Great Man Theory In A Nutshell

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.

Key takeaways

  • 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.


  • Historical Figures: As mentioned earlier, historical figures like Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, and Julius Caesar are often cited as examples of great leaders who are believed to have possessed innate leadership qualities.
  • Business Leaders: Some business leaders are often considered examples of the Great Man Theory in action. For instance, Steve Jobs is often described as a visionary leader with innate talents that drove the success of Apple Inc.
  • Political Leaders: Political figures like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt are sometimes seen through the lens of the Great Man Theory due to their leadership during critical times in history.
  • Military Commanders: Military leaders like General George Patton and Admiral Horatio Nelson are often portrayed as natural-born leaders who had an extraordinary impact on their respective fields.
  • Inspirational Speakers: Some individuals known for their charisma and ability to inspire others, such as Martin Luther King Jr., are seen as embodying the qualities associated with the Great Man Theory.
  • Entrepreneurs: Successful entrepreneurs who have built empires from scratch, like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, are sometimes viewed as having the innate qualities of great leaders.
  • Sports Coaches: Legendary sports coaches like Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson are considered examples of great leaders in their respective sports due to their ability to motivate and lead teams to success.
  • Innovators: Inventors and innovators like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein are sometimes viewed as great men who reshaped their fields through their unique abilities and contributions.
  • Cultural Icons: Figures like Shakespeare and Beethoven, who left a lasting cultural impact, can also be seen as fitting into the archetype of the Great Man Theory.
  • Critiques and Counterexamples: Scholars and critics who challenge the Great Man Theory, like Herbert Spencer, provide counterexamples by arguing that leaders are shaped by their societal and environmental contexts.
  • Modern Leadership Development: Today, leadership development programs often focus on identifying and nurturing leadership qualities in individuals, which is a departure from the idea that great leaders are solely born with innate traits.
  • Diversity in Leadership: The Great Man Theory’s focus on masculine traits has spurred discussions about the importance of diverse leadership styles and the inclusion of feminine leadership qualities in leadership theory and practice.

Key Highlights

  • The Great Man Theory: Developed by historian Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, this theory argues that great leaders are born with inherent traits and talents that make them effective leaders.
  • Six Archetypes of Heroes: Carlyle categorized leaders into six archetypes based on their role in shaping history: the divine hero, the prophet hero, the poet hero, the priest hero, the king hero, and the man of letters hero.
  • Opposition to the Theory: Sociologist Herbert Spencer argued that leaders are products of their society and the complex influences that shaped it. Critics also point out that possessing leadership qualities doesn’t guarantee leadership, and modern research challenges the theory’s exclusive focus on masculine traits.
  • Leadership as a Science: Modern leadership research views leadership as a learned skill that can be nurtured and developed, incorporating both masculine and feminine traits.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 
Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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