Great Man Theory of Leadership: Examples, Pros and Cons

Great Man Theory of Leadership

The Great Man Theory of leadership postulates that great leaders are born, not made. Some people are just born with the personality characteristics that predispose them to have great leadership skills.

According to this theory, it is not possible to teach people how to become great leaders.

Because they are born with a very specific personality profile, they emerge in society at key moments in history. During these times their in-born traits allow them to excel and accomplish greatness.

Examples of leaders in history and modern times that fit the definition of the Great Man Theory include Napoleon Bonaparte, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

Definition of Great Man Theory of Leadership

The study of great leaders in history focused on both physical and personality traits. For instance, physical characteristics such as height and appearance were often included in a descriptive taxonomy of “great man” traits.

Personality factors were also identified as traits of great leaders, which included self-confidence, extraversion, charm, courage, aggressiveness and energy level.

This view was strongly supported by the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which provided an account of history as told through the biographies of great men that held leadership positions during significant times in history.

In that era, few women were allowed in the military or positions of political power, and were therefore excluded from consideration.

Examples of Great Man Theory of Leadership

1. Napoleon Bonaparte   

Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military leader who is famous for conquering most of Europe in the early 19th century.

Napoleon’s conquests led to a swift rise in his political status, which he parlayed into a coup, seizing political power in 1799 and crowning himself emperor in 1804.

Napoleon was shrewd and ambitious, and a great military strategist. He successfully waged war against various European nations and expanded his empire.

Although most famous for his military accomplishments, many of his other initiatives are also noteworthy. For instance, he instituted many reforms in banking and education, and was a strong supporter of the sciences and arts.

One of his most meaningful and enduring accomplishments was his role in reshaping the French legal system. An effort that resulted in significant reform and remains the foundation of French civil law today.

Napoleon Bonaparte fits the profile of a Great Man because of these accomplishments, but is also widely known as an autocratic leader due to his strongman approach.

2. Abraham Lincoln  

Abraham Lincoln appears on the list of “great men” put together by many writers because of several very significant accomplishments. First, he was the 16th president of the United States.

His political rise was mostly due to his moderate views on several core controversies impacting the country at the time. One reason he makes the Great Man list is because he preserved the Union during the Civil War.

This feat alone was remarkable and without it, no one knows how the history of the world would have unfolded. His second most notable accomplishment was the emancipation of slaves in 1863.

Throughout his presidency, he was steadfast in his principles and withstood defiance and opposition from all sides, including his generals, his Cabinet, his party and a majority of the American people.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr.   

Martin Luther King, Jr. played a prominent role in the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

MLK grew up in a relatively well-off family in the Deep South in an era of strict segregation. However, one summer King worked in the North and was astounded at how well Blacks and Whites got along and ate together freely. It was a summer that had a profound impact on his understanding of race relations.

His most famous moment in history is the “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered in Washington D.C. in 1963. King was a strong proponent of nonviolence and peaceful protest. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was at that time the youngest person to receive the award.

Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed many of the key personality characteristics identified in the Great Man Theory, including being charismatic, persuasive, confident and courageous.

4. Nelson Mandela  

Nelson Mandela fought against racism his entire life. He faced enemies far more powerful than himself as an individual man.

However, his ideals and his determination allowed him to prevail against incredible odds.

He worked tirelessly to end apartheid in South Africa in the 20th century. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with F. W. de Klerk, who was South Africa’s president at the time.

Even though he spent nearly 30 years in jail, he persevered and eventually became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

He demonstrated many of the personality traits identified by the Great Man Theory, including being determined, persuasive, courageous, and self-confident.

See Also: Democratic Leadership Model

5. Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was the driving force behind at least three revolutions. He worked tirelessly to end racism, violence against the oppressed, and colonial rule of India.

Gandhi is an example of an amazing individual that possessed some of the most admirable attributes of a Great Man. He was focused and determined; resilient and strong, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.

He spoke with a level of wisdom and eloquence that inspired millions of people to take action, even at great personal expense. Even though he endured physical assaults and imprisonment, he refused to accept defeat. He has gone down in history as one of the greatest and most visionary leaders of mankind.

Great Man Theory of Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses

Pro: Described Personality Characteristics

One value of the Great Man theory of leadership is the early attempt to identify key personality characteristics and traits of great leaders.

Although different authors produced slightly different descriptions, there are several common denominators, such as: charisma, persuasiveness, courage, and self-confidence. This psychological perspective on leadership is one that nearly all modern theories of leadership rely on today.

Pro: Considered Physical Characteristics

A lot of criticism of the Great Man Theory actually points to the consideration of physical characteristics of leaders, such as height.

However, this criticism may not be as valid as it once was in light of more recent research. For example, research reviewed by Vugt and Grabo (2015), shows that:

People prefer leaders with dominant, masculine-looking faces in times of war and conflict, yet they prefer leaders with more trustworthy, feminine faces in peacetime. In addition, leaders with older-looking faces are preferred in traditional knowledge domains, whereas younger-looking leaders are preferred for new challenges “ (p. 484).

Pro: Classification of Leadership Domains

The Great Man Theory, as proposed by Thomas Carlye, offered a taxonomy of leadership types. These types were labeled “Hero Classes” and included: Divine, Prophet, Poet, Priest, King, or Man of Letters.

For example, the Divine Hero could be found in Greek or Norse mythology, such as Odin or Thor.

The formal study of leadership was in its infancy and this first step in creating a classification framework for different types of leadership is a strength of the theory which shows an understanding that not all leaders are the same.

Pro: Propelled the Study of Leadership

The Great Man Theory of leadership and the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica helped bring the formal study of the subject into the scholarly domain.

It helped popularize the educated public’s understanding of leadership styles and sparked further interest and debate on the matter. No subject matter can advance without considerable discussion and analysis, and so perhaps the greatest value of the Great Man Theory is that it gave birth to a much more thorough and eventually scientific study of leadership.

Con: Not Supported by Science   

One very common criticism of the Great Man Theory is that it was postulated without being supported by any science at all.

This is true, there is no denying that. However, psychological science was practically non-existent in the 1800s. There were no such things as personality inventories or observational study which modern researchers rely on today to study leadership scientifically.

In a way, it is a bit unfair to criticize a theory for not using scientific methodologies that did not exist at the time.  

Con: Leadership can’t be Taught     

The fundamental premise of the Great Man Theory is that leaders are born. This means there is no way for the common man to become a great leader; quite the discouraging blow to the infinite number of leadership training programs that exist in the world today.

Corporations spend millions of dollars every year trying to develop the leadership potential of their employees, but according to the Great Man Theory, that is all a waste of time and money.

Fortunately, there are many examples of great leaders today that will confess to not possessing great skills early in their careers. Many of them had to evolve into greatness, mostly as a result of professional and personal failures. Therefore, it would seem that great leadership can be acquired by those not gifted with it at birth.

Con: Fails to Consider the Role of the Environment

Many leaders that are considered great today were shaped by significant and sometimes traumatic events in their lives.

Roosevelt became paralyzed from the waist down and married a woman who showed him the unsightly state of the poor in America. This helped open his eyes and heart to their plight. Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by his family’s devotion to the church and the summer he spent in the North where he was astonished at the freedom Blacks enjoyed.

There is no room in the Great Man Theory for these environmental factors that helped shape the personalities and personal philosophies of many great leaders.  

Con: Gender Exclusivity    

The name of the theory itself says it all. The Great Man Theory only accepts one gender as being able to possess leadership skills.

It would seem that in addition to being born with certain personality traits that lead to greatness, it is also necessary to be born of a specific gender as well. Although to be fair, the 1800s was a time in history in which society was not as enlightened as it is in the 21st century.

A modern version of the Great Man Theory could be renamed to reflect the possibility of either gender being capable of great leadership, perhaps: the Great Human Theory.

More Leadership Models

Conclusion

The Great Man Theory of leadership was one of the first attempts to identify the personality traits of leadership. Great leaders were described as possessing courage, charisma, self-confidence, and aggressiveness.

Although it was originally proposed in the 1800s, it is often criticized as lacking a scientific foundation, not being gender inclusive, and not taking in to account environmental factors that often shape the personality and philosophy of those identified as great leaders.

These shortcomings are substantial and are a major reason the theory is less relevant in the 21st century. However, the theory generated much discussion and helped propel the subject of leadership to become a formal object of scientific study.  

References

Antonakis, J., & Eubanks, D. L. (2017). Looking leadership in the face. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(3), 270-275. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417705888

Carlyle T. On Heroes, Hero-worship and the heroic in history. Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother, 1988.

Conger, J. A. & Kanungo, R. N. (1987). Toward a behavioral theory of charismatic leadership in organizational settings. Academy of Management Review, 12, 637-647.

Little, A. C. (2014). Facial appearance and leader choice in different contexts: Evidence for task contingent selection based on implicit and learned face-behaviour/face-ability associations,
The Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 865-874. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.04.002.

Vugt, M. V., & Grabo, A. E. (2015). The many faces of leadership: An evolutionary-psychology approach. Current Directions in Psychological Science24(6), 484-489. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721415601971

Dave Cornell (PhD)
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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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