The Great Man Theory of Leadership

Andrei Tapalaga

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The argument as to “who should be the leader” has reached an over boiling point in our society because of the increasing number of trends as well as different perspectives that people are having. By writing this article I neither agree nor disagree with the “Great Man Theory”, but I think that it is something to take into consideration as well as something that more people should be aware of.

An introduction to the theory

Around the start of the 19th century, a British writer by the name of Thomas Carlyle has been working on analyzing different perspectives on universal history, and from most of his work, he has seen a correlation between different leaders through time and world that has inspired him to create the “Great Man Theory” in 1840. The theory refers to all leaders are born with specific traits that cannot be developed or gained and this has been seen in Thomas Carlyle’s work as he has found out a lot of the behavior that leaders have manifested has some sort of similarity that brings followers together. He insists that leaders will be the ones coming forwards first with no hesitation as they have innate qualities and are destined to lead.

A better look at leadership

In order to understand how this theory should be applied, we must get a better understanding of a specific context that is suitable and also gets a better understanding of leadership. Based on the personality of a person you will have a different leader come to your mind or a different role of leadership but, most of us will head towards presidents or bosses (leaders at work). Many assume that the main job of a leader is to make sure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, however, a leader has a much more difficult job apart from this. A better way to understand the main or first role of a leader we should take a look at a descriptive theory by John Kotter, Leadership vs Management theory 1990). In this theory, Kotter argues that management is about making sure that the members of an organization do what they are meant to do, whereas leadership is about creating change.

Therefore we see that a leader must create some sort of change that will attract followers and create a community that can evolve in many forms. The leader should not evolve alone but with his followers and the people around them. One of the important qualities that Thomas Carlyle is referring to in his theory is the quality of being inspirational to others. The reason as to why this is a very vital quality is because this quality can attract followers. Another quality that in my opinion is important is the ability to take initiative, in many cases, this is how the leader of the team is unintentionally picked, and as he aspires to be the one taking initiative most of the other members will be willing to follow.

The followers of the leader which would be found in a group context perhaps must have the same vision, in most contexts every team no matter how big or small have a goal that they are trying to achieve. The leader has the same goal but is not able to achieve such goal as he may not have the skills or resources, however, based on the theory he has the innate skills to group together the people that do have the skills and resources necessary for such a task but most importantly that want to achieve the same goal. What must be understood from this is that there is a strong difference between a leader and a manager as they have two different job roles.

Back to the theory at hand

Another aspect that Thomas Carlyle is talking about is the motivation of the leader. A leader may motivate his followers but he may not be motivated by his followers directly. There are very few things that can motivate a leader and this is very important as the leader must always be motivated not only to motivate others but to work the hardest in order to become a role model to the rest.

In this case, we can assume that a leader is easily motivated and especially motivated by the work of his followers as well as the commitment that the followers put into him. We can also say that motivation may come from the values that the leader has combined with his personality. A similarity that has been found in the work of Thomas Carlyle is that most leaders are optimistic and they have to be in order to furthermore motivate and aspire to their followers.

Something that I would say Thomas Carlyle has missed is the ability of a leader to take hard decisions on the spot. This is a massive similarity between leaders and something that is of utmost importance. It is true that we can have different types of leaders based on different contexts who would not be required to make hard decisions within a second. The theory has taken an extensive look at Napoleon Bonaparte as he is deemed of being the best leader that has ever lived in this world, not necessarily for what he did or achieved but for the number of people he has inspired which lead to many followers. He had the ability to make people believe not only in him but in his values as well as the reasons that he was fighting in the “Napoleonic” era.

Can the impact be seen?

To show the potential that this theory has we can look at the idea of evolution from one era to another based on leaders as the main factor to such accomplishment. Having a great leader that has all the qualities required to be a good leader as well as to lead a whole nation to economical or technological evolution. To have the power of initiative in your hands leads to an organizational system that is required for such achievement.

Let’s say that we have a country that is going downhill and is in need of a leader to raise it up again, however, most of the citizens are pessimistic and have their morale down because of their living standards in the past years. Even with the qualities of a great leader, it is a difficult task and I do not see exactly such a huge difference between having a leader with all the prospects and a leader that does not meet the requirements brought by the theory itself. Herbert Spencer has criticized this theory with a similar idea of having the society having the power to reject the leader and his values.

But do you see, this is where we have the major difference that many scholars have brought as it depends very much on the point of view you have when approaching such a problem. A leader must have a unique physiological force in order not only to make such drastic changes but to have the ability to enforce himself through an initiative to even the toughest cohort of potential followers.

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