Great Man Theory of Leadership

Have you ever noticed that people tend to look at some of the most famous figures throughout history as an inspiration to do their own great things? In the 19th century, a leadership theory was developed to help explain this phenomenon. Called the Great Man theory of leadership, the purpose was to show that some people are inspired toward greatness, like Jesus or Muhammad, and that this allows them to be able to change the world.

Why Do We Look At Historical Figures For Inspiration?

When we look at the famous figures of history, whether that’s Abraham Lincoln of Genghis Khan, what we see is more than a person. We see their experience, their choices, and their observations about life. We realize that they had to have a certain level of influence to be able to rise to such a historical status – even if that status wasn’t achieved during that person’s lifetime. This series of observations gives an extra level of credence to their statements and actions that the average person just doesn’t have.

This brings us to the question of why. Why do we look at historical figures for guidance when we have effective leaders all around us? The reason is that humanity tends to shoot for the stars. We all want to become the very best that we can be in whatever it is that we do. We’ll look at modern experts for advice, but we’ll give more credence to the experts that came before them because they were the ones to initially establish whatever task, event, or subject that is being discussed.

Are Historical Events Influenced by Great Men?

The Great Man leadership theory basically states that all events in history are influenced by the greatest figures of history. Whether they are political leaders, scientific innovators, or niche subject experts, their choices continue to influence the choices that others make when similar circumstances are encountered. This happens at every layer of society. How someone reacts to a burnt meatloaf is the same process as someone reacts to the threat of international nuclear war.

The problem with this theory has always been a question of which came first: the decisions of the Great Men in history or the historical events that caused the Great Men to make the influential choices in the first place?

Depending on your perspective, you will either support the Great Man theory of leadership or not believe in it at all. There is no denying the fact, however, that even today, the average person looks to “great” people for advice. Whether it is an inspirational quote, experience from a difficult choice that was made, or just the desire to replicate the success that has been seen in other historical figures, at some level there is some validity to this theory.

Defining what makes a person great is the sticking point. Is it the choices a person makes that creates greatness? Or is it the historical circumstances that influence the choices that make a person a great leader? That’s likely a discussion that will never be truly finished.

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