Great Man Theory

'Great man theory' was initialized in the 19th century as a leadership theory mostly by Thomas Carlyle. The theory postulated that great men and heroes had so much influence that the course of history, movements and leadership could be traced back to these individuals and their leadership characteristics directly influencing the history of man. Carlyle suggested that their characteristics whether they be personal, political or otherwise gave them a platform to lead from. This platform gave leaders decisive and immediate power to make a mark on the history of humanity and thereby leading in a way that defined them as historical figures.

Herbert Spencer came up with a counter argument around 20 years later which has been the normative perspective up until today's world. He countered great man theory by stating that these great men would not be the decision makers and influencer's if it weren't for the social construct in which they lived. This would of course take the initiative power away from the individual man and show that the man had no power except that which was given to them by the way in which the social structure gave their backing to his development and position.

Ultimately Spencer believed that the society had the leadership power and the society formed the individual to fulfill a role but did not give the 'man' ultimate power and authority to be the history maker.


Defining Attributes of Great Man Theory

Although mostly disproved as a possible applicable leadership theory, there are definitions and techniques that we can learn from this. There is strong history behind this short movement but with the sociological thought behind it reveals even more.

  • Historical Legacy is a defining element of Great man theory as these individual leaders are historical figures lead the way. Napoleon was a great figure used in this theory as he made history and lead thousands of people who were behind his vision for France. Due to one mans influence and decisiveness the entire time period was marked forever by this french leader.
  • One man can change the world he lives in. This is a great take home message as it's true - history shows many great men and women who have left their marks on humanity. Some for the positive and some for more negative reasons but either way they fit into this leadership theory as great men (and women!) who have lead the way into a new era in history.
  • Leadership is in our hands and we have a responsibility to know our platforms and make the best choices possible. Often we think that our influence is a lot more minor than the reality, where we influence a lot more people and situations. This theory exemplifies that praxis of 'one person can change history' and the fact we change peoples lives everyday.

If you'd like to see other leadership theories like great man theory then you can see our library of contemporary theories which are more modern.

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