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Great men as leaders

11 February 2015 03:32 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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“G reat leaders are God-gifted, not man-made.” This quote sums up the basic tenant of the Great Man theory of leadership – i.e. you are either a natural born leader or you are not.



Napoleon Bonaparte
The Great Man t heory of leadership became popular in the 19th century. The term ‘Great Man’ was coined because, at the time, leadership was thought of primarily as a male quality, especially in relation to military leadership. The mythology behind some of the world’s most famous leaders such as Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth and Alexander the Great helped contribute to the notion that great leaders are born, not made.


In many situations, it seems as if the right man for the job emerges almost magically to take control of a situation and lead a group of people into safety or success. Historian Thomas Carlyle had a major influence on this theory of leadership, at one point stating, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Great Man theory
Some of the earliest research on leadership looked at people who were already successful leaders. These individuals often included aristocratic rulers who achieved their position through birthright. Because people of a lesser social status had fewer opportunities to practice and achieve leadership roles, it contributed to the idea that leadership is an inherent ability. Rejecting the Great Man theory totally may not be appropriate. It had some basis that some people have personalities that lend themselves to leadership. That includes personal traits, habits and knowledge.

Even today, people often describe prominent leaders as having the right qualities or personality for the position, implying that inherent characteristics are what make these people effective leaders. This is prominent in Asian context as such there is tendency to select political leaders on their family lineage. Carlyle also felt that the study of great men was useful to one’s own heroic side; that by examining the lives led by such heroes, one could not help but uncover something about one’s true nature.

The Great Man theory of leadership was used by Carlyle to explain different facets of leadership such as: a king, war hero (Napoleon, Alexander the Great), poet (Dante, Shakespeare), man of letters (Johnson, Rousseau), prophet, priest (Mahomet, Luther) as a leader. Although Carlyle’s theory was supported by many, there were critics as well.

One of the most forceful critics of Carlyle’s formulation was sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer suggested that the leaders were products of the society in which they lived. He wrote, “You must admit 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 to which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

Great Men’s biographies
For present day leaders it is very beneficial to study the biographies of ‘Great Men’, as there are areas where a single person could shape the course of events. Nevertheless, biographies should not be studied in isolation because it completely ignores all other aspects of historical changes, such as the role that geography played social and economic history, or the gradual accumulation of small changes.

For example, if one were to use the Great Man theory to study the Roman Empire during the Pax Romana, you would attribute the Empire’s stability solely to the good governance of Emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius but might completely ignore the role that economic stability and growth in the Empire played and the role that the Mediterranean Sea played in this growth.

The Great Man theory would attribute the rise of the Italian Renaissance to rulers such as Lorenzo di Medici and to artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo, may completely ignore the role that trade with the Middle East, started by the Crusades and the Reconquista in Spain played in the rediscovery of ancient texts that allowed the Renaissance (French for rebirth, as in rebirth of ideas) to take place in the first place.

Further, the Great Man theory ignores the role that social groups, such as religious institutions, social classes, or national groups play in history and instead focuses completely on their leaders. For example, the Great Man theory when applied to the history of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches would only look at the institutions’ notable members or leaders, rather than the institutions as a whole and look at trends that affected them, such as the anti-clericalism that developed prior to the Protestant Reformation.Ignoring ‘little people’

The Great Man theory largely died out for a reason - it ignores all the ‘little people’ who may have made the Great Man what he was, greatly assisted in his efforts and perhaps contributed far more collectively than he ever did alone. Essentially, it hypothesizes two classes of people, shepherds and sheep.Even in Sri Lanka the events took place in the recent past can explain merits and demerits of the Great Man theory. Sri Lanka was going through a civil unrest over a period of 30 years. Then Sri Lankan president, charismatic leader Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the leadership to crush terrorist groups and to re-establish peace in the country in 2009. While not undermining his leadership in winning the war, the fact remains that there were several other political and non-political organisations, civilian groups, armed forces and individuals supported the efforts towards winning the war.


Later on, for political gains, Mahinda allies were projecting a Great Man image to him undermining the efforts put in by all other groups and the intelligent people of Sri Lanka were not ready to buy into that story for long. They wanted long-term sustainability of the country devoid of corruption based on good governance principles. Result - once insurmountable Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by a humble peasant family descendant Maithripala Sirisena from the same party who did not have any lineage to royalty or to the so-called upper class of society.
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