Great Man Theory
The Basic Idea
If someone asked you to think of a great leader, who would come to mind? If asked to explain your reasoning, are there certain characteristics you would point out, or certain choices you would say proved their leadership abilities?
According to the Great Man Theory, great leaders are born, not made.1 Leadership traits are inherent and cannot be learned. Great leaders come forward when they’re most needed, in order to become the foundation upon which history is built. Essentially, according to the Great Man Theory, people in positions of power deserve to lead because of characteristics granted to them at birth, which ultimately help them become heroes.
The Great Man Theory is mostly associated with Thomas Carlyle, who looked for a source of strength and direction during the Napoleonic wars.1 Carlyle put his faith in the Great Man: someone who was “unmistakably” sent to earth by God. Expanding on his beliefs, Carlyle delivered a series of lectures on the role heroes play in shaping history. These lectures were synthesized into a single work in 1841, titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. In his work, a deep respect for strength combined with the conviction of a God-given mission emerged.2
Ultimately, there could be six archetypes: the hero as divinity (i.e. pagan myths), prophet (i.e. Muhammad), poet (i.e. William Shakespeare), priest (i.e. John Knox), man of letters (i.e. Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and king (i.e. Oliver Cromwell).2 Carlyle argued that studying great men was profitable to our own heroic sides: examining heroes’ lives and greatness could help us uncover aspects of our character.3
Carlyle went on to do much subsequent work regarding his heroes. Oliver Cromwell, English soldier and statesman who led parliamentary forces in the English Civil Wars, was Carlyle’s ideal man.2 4 Frederick the Great – King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786 and a military campaigner – was another “hero as king” in Carlyle’s eyes.5 Carlyle wrote Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches in 1845 and The History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great in 1857, detailing the men’s heroic accomplishments.2
Due to Carlyle’s work, the Great Man Theory was most prominent in the 19th century, popularized in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition of 1911. This book is filled with detailed biographies about the great men of history.6 Early research related to Carlyle’s work considered successful leaders, often aristocratic rulers who were granted their positions through birthright.1 Of course, people of lower social status did not have the same opportunities to achieve leadership roles; this was blindly considered to be evidence that leadership ability is inherent.
Scottish historian and writer Thomas Carlyle is most known for his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, in which he argued the key role in history played by the actions of great men.2 Carlyle grew up in a family with strong Calvinist beliefs, and was expected to be a minister. Although he distanced from his faith while at the University of Edinburgh, he held onto some Calvinist values which shaped his later work, such as a desire to denounce evil. Carlyle’s work was highly influential – albeit controversial – during the Victorian era.
The idea that leaders are born (and not made) is still a common and hotly debated idea. Those who believe in the original notion of innate superiority may be reluctant to take on positions of leadership if they believe they don’t have what it takes.
Most contemporary support for the Great Man Theory rests in its assertion that great leaders possess certain characteristics.1 7 An extension of appreciation for the theory, rather than direct support of it, may be more fitting, as Carlyle’s work inspired the development of theoretical approaches of leadership, such as leadership styles and trait theories.8 9
For example, the Big Five personality traits are frequently cited in contemporary research about leaders.10 11 12 The five traits themselves are: (1) extraversion: the tendency to be outgoing, assertive, and active; (2) agreeableness: the tendency to be kind and trustworthy; (3) conscientiousness: determined by achievement and dependability; (4) neuroticism: the tendency to be anxious and fearful; and (5) openness to experiences: the tendency to be creative and perceptive. Researchers assess the five traits and determine which contribute to effective leadership, and which may be ineffective (i.e. neuroticism).
The Big Five personality traits and their bearing on leadership shares some common assumptions with Great Man Theory. The debate between nature and nurture when it comes to leadership still exists, but Carlyle’s work was certainly influential on leadership research.
Due to the lack of empirical, scientific evidence for the Great Man Theory,7 there remains a lot of criticism. When the theory was first popularized, one of the most prominent critics was biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer held that attributing historical successes to individual decisions was primitive and unscientific, and that the so-called “great men” were solely products of their social environment.16 Before a “great man” could shape and build his society, the same society had to shape and build him.
There is also a sense of survivorship bias attached to the Great Man Theory: there are likely more people who possess “leadership qualities” than there are “great” historical leaders. If leadership was truly innate, then this should not be the case. Rather, research has shown that successful leadership is complex, influenced by many different factors.17 Similarly, the theory excludes those who may not have necessarily been prominent leaders, but without whom history would not exist as we know it.18 Carlyle’s concept thus raises philosophical concerns about the role of the individual versus the collective, and brings to light the psychological debate of nature versus nurture.
Aside from the tenets of the Great Man Theory, Carlyle has also been criticized for the way his work was written in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.1 Of course, the use of “man” itself in his theory reflects a gender bias: a perception that history lies on the backs of dominant males, combined with conviction that leadership is inherently masculine. There is also a deep religiosity to Carlyle’s language in this text, especially in his warning that – for those who were not divinely appointed by God to become heroes – our jobs are to recognize and uplift “great men” into their positions of prominence. Only by obeying the rulings of these leaders can the “sick” world be healed, according to Carlyle. The Great Man thesis may ultimately say more about the patriarchal and individualistic assumptions of Western society in the 19th century than it informs about the progression of historical events. It demonstrates how historians and academics reflect the prejudices of their age in their work.
Due to the complexity of leadership, associated research tends to be limited in its breadth and clarity of core leader attributes. In particular, different studies tend to focus on varying, narrow categories of individual differences.19 In an attempt to organize the existing literature on the effects of individual differences on leadership, recent frameworks have distinguished between trait-like and state-like differences. While research on trait-like differences would be dispositional and thus an extension of the Great Man Theory, research on state-like differences shifts its focus to buildable skills.
In order to assess the conceptually varied research on individual differences and leadership effectiveness, a group of psychology and management researchers set out to compare the roles of trait-like (i.e. personality and intelligence) and state-like differences (i.e. knowledge and skills) in leaders.19 They conducted a meta-analysis of 1,846 articles across 25 individual differences proposed to be related to effective leadership.
Out of the 25 individual differences they assessed, 13 were found to be essential for effective leadership: seven trait-like individual differences (achievement motivation, charisma, creativity, dominance, energy, honesty and integrity, and self-confidence), and six state-like individual differences (decision making, interpersonal skills, management skills, oral communication, problem-solving skills, and written communication).
Ultimately, the researchers found that although both types of individual differences were important predictors of effective leadership, their relative impacts didn’t differ much.19 Additionally, the amount of variance in leadership effectiveness that was explained by individual differences was typically influenced by the leader’s organizational level and organization type. For organizational level, variances in effectiveness were better explained by individual differences for those in lower levels of leadership, rather than higher levels. Organization type also mattered, such that a willingness to adjust to change was more strongly related to leadership effectiveness in government and military settings.
The findings from this 2011 meta-analysis suggest the existence of a dispositional component to effective leadership, supporting Carlyle’s Great Man Theory. However, buildable knowledge and skills are also important for effective leadership, which suggests that leadership models should expand to include these more coachable characteristics.
Great man or great myth? It really does seem like it is a mix of the two perspectives. Of course, “great man” refers to innate traits here, rather than support of the idea that only male heroes deserve credit or respect.
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- Spector, B. A. (2016). Carlyle, Freud, and the Great Man Theory more fully considered. Leadership, 12(2), 250-260.
- Cockshut, A. O. J. (2021, February 1). Thomas Carlyle. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Carlyle
- Carlyle, T. (1888). On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Frederick A. Stokes.
- Morrill, J. S. (2021, April 21). Oliver Cromwell. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oliver-Cromwell
- Anderson, M. S. (2021, February 24). Frederick II. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-II-king-of-Prussia
- Boyles, D. (2016). Everything explained that is explainable: On the creation of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s celebrated eleventh edition, 1910-1911.
- Halaychik, C. S. (2016). Chapter 1 – Leadership theories. Lessons in Library Leadership.
- De Vries, M. K., & Cheak-Baillargeon, A. (2015). Sociology of leadership in organizations. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition).
- Kumaran, M. (2012). Chapter 3 – Leadership styles. Leadership in Libraries.
- Hassan, H., Asad, S., & Hoshino, Y. (2016). Determinants of leadership style in big five personality dimensions. Universal Journal of Management, 4(4), 161-179.
- De Hoogh, A. H., Den Hartog, D. N., & Koopman, P. L. (2005). Linking the big five‐factors of personality to charismatic and transactional leadership; Perceived dynamic work environment as a moderator. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 26(7), 839-865.
- Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2000). Five-factor model of personality and transformational leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(5), 751-765.
- Germain, M. L. (2012). Traits and skills theories as the nexus between leadership and expertise: Reality or fallacy? Performance Improvement, 51(5), 32-39.
- Kumar, S., Adhish, V. S., & Deoki, N. (2014). Making sense of theories of leadership for capacity building. Indian Journal of Community Medicine: Official Publication of Indian Association of Preventive & Social Medicine, 39(2), 82-86.
- Youngjohn, R. M. (2000). Is leadership trait theory fact or fiction? A meta-analytic investigation of the relationship between individual differences and leader effectiveness.
- Spencer, H. (1874). The Study of Sociology.
- Yukl, G. (2012). Effective leadership behavior: What we know and what questions need more attention. Academy of Management Perspectives, 26(4), 66-85.
- Is There Still Value in ‘Great Man’ History? (2019, September 9). History Today. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/there-still-value-‘great-man’-history
- Hoffman, B. J., Woehr, D. J., Maldagen-Youngjohn, R., & Lyons, B. D. (2011). Great man or great myth? A quantitative review of the relationship between individual differences and leadership effectiveness. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84(2), 347-381.