The Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory

This term paper explains the leadership style of “The Great Man Theory”, by Thomas Carlyle, a historian of nineteenth century. The idea of the theory is leader and leadership. The basic idea of the theory is that leaders are born and not made. Thomas Carlyle, a historian in nineteenth century presented his ideas on leadership, named “The Great Man Theory.” Carlyle focused on the influence great men had on historical events. Like great people such as Mohammad, Shakespeare, and Napoleon among others (Goleman). The basic theme of The Great Man Theory is that “Leaders are born and not made” (Bass). Research done in the nineteenth and early part of twentieth century on the leadership primarily focused on the people who were already great and established leaders. These people were mostly from the aristocratic class, very few people in the lower classes had the opportunity to lead. This is the reason why the belief that leadership is generally related with aristocracy or upper class (Bass). The idea presented in the great man theory also comes from the myth that a great man would magically rise. This theory did not focus on gender because in the great man theory most of the leaders at that time were male and they believed that a woman as a leader was not an accepted idea (Goleman). The great man theory talks about the influence of great men in history. The main reason for the impact of great men on the history, is due to personal traits of the leaders such as wisdom, passion, charisma, competence, and trust. The great man theory has received a lot of attention ever since presented by Carlyle. Such a great amount of attention is focused on history or events of history that are related and written about great men. The significance of the great man theory is also due to the relationship of performance with the personalities in top position (Kayworth.) Most of the research made in the psychological area, with reference to the great man theory, has specifically been oriented to the complexities in selecting individuals who are best suitable to assume the role of leadership (Kayworth). The theory says that great men continue to remain as the great personalities over a period of time. Different events in which great men are involved have a higher product rate of success. Moreover, great men are said to show a huge extent of strength in the events full of fearfulness and nervousness (Bass.)

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The great man theory states that the quality of a great man is leadership. Some believe that at the time of Carlyle, leaders are very different from their followers. Carlyle also believes that fate was a primary reason for the major events of history. The idea that leaders are born and not made was accepted and acknowledged not only by the scholars but of others that tried to make people believe in this theory. The great men in each community were to have great levels of energy, morals and be very intelligent. It was believed that followers are always led by the leaders. The ideas of this theory mention such men as Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Douglas MacArthur as the role models of great men theory, who were born with great abilities that have been associated with this theory (Bass). For the last fifty years, contingency theories and behavioral theories have dominated literature and the focus of scholars has shifted away from the great man theory. However, there are some scholars who still consider the idea that leaders are born and not made. They believe that leadership is not a learned skill but has something to do with natural forces. In researching the idea of the theory that biographies and life histories of great men sometimes say that they had entered the world with great genetic abilities and somehow their future role of leadership was predetermined. The critics of this theory believe that it is just a myth. They believe that leadership can be taught and learned and that everybody has a desire to learn. The great man theory emphasizes the role of leaders. Carlyle states that few people have the distinctive features. Leaders that are said to be a genius have the qualities to succeed. Leadership is a demanding job with huge responsibilities and enormous pressures. It would be a disappointment to leaders to think that they are just ordinary people who were in the right place just at the right time (Bass). The idea of great man theory supports the idea that the ability to lead is natural and cannot be created. The role of leader to lead is associated with the leader’s personality. Managers and leaders are not the same. As managers seem to favor maintaining the condition of status quo, the leaders strives for innovation taking all possible risks (Zaleznik 126). Leaders seems to have traits that are common with artists, like creativity, than managers do. Leaders are distinctive in history, motivation and the ways in which they think and act.

They are also different in the sense of their selves, their work abilities and their relationships with others. The difference between leadership and management can be explained that managers confront with complexity, and in leadership it is mostly coping with change. It is stated that leadership and management are different processes but not necessarily different people. The people in favor of this theory firmly believe that management turns into leadership when it matures (Goleman, 23). “Leaders are inductive, managers are deductive; leaders are dynamic managers are static; leaders have ideas, managers act on facts; leaders have broad vision, managers have narrow; Leaders are experiential, managers are rote; leaders ask questions, managers answer them; leaders develop and construct processes, managers are content with already developed processes; leaders have strategy, managers plan tactics; leaders have long-term vision, managers have short-term; leaders are always looking for change, managers prefer stability; leaders take risk, managers avoid them by following the rules strictly (Goleman, 46).” Defining charisma seems to be more difficult than defining leadership. The distinctive feature is a gift or talent, according to some scholars including Carlyle. The theory strongly asserts that leaders are born having such mystical abilities and are different from their followers. “Personal Factors: Cognitive- pluralist, radical and unitary ideologies, orientation of social domination: Motivational- authoritarianism: Moral- egalitarianism and moral development along with moral scope (Goleman, 48).” “Situational Factors: Deep structures- norms, roles, history, distribution of wealth and hierarchy: Goal Interdependence; and Culture (Goleman, 48).” From mid-nineteenth century to the decade of 1940, the research on leadership was dominated by efforts to show that there are characteristics or qualities that leaders have that set them from followers. The research shows that leadership abilities are that of an effective and successful leader. Studies have focused on the measurement of leadership traits and the relationship that is between criteria and traits of leader effectiveness (Bass). Leadership was not believed to be separate and different from the other traits that are used in language to show differences that exist among people. On the other hand leadership was believed to be property, the survival of which was explicable in relations with other fundamental or basic traits that make individuals different (Bass). It is important to point out some of the view points and arguments against the great man theory.

Prior to the middle of 20th century, the idea presented by the great man theory had an impact on one idea of leadership.

However, the idea of the great man theory has lost, specifically after the middle of twentieth century. The main reasons for this downfall of the theory was the development of behavioral sciences (Bass). The scholars have now directed their time and energy elsewhere. The contingency and behavioral theories continue to dominate. Most of the modern scholars do not believe that leaders are born and that the great man theory is just a myth. They believe that leadership is, a learned skill and has nothing to do with natural forces (Mowery). Modern day scholars firmly believe that the effectiveness of leaders is influenced by environmental forces rather their abilities. They believe that leaders have little impact over technological factors (Mowery). The decisions made by leaders are connected by the wave of the world economy. They believe that leaders are helpless when they face tragedies such as natural disaster. They rarely show control over external forces, they just provide necessary support as they adapt to the situation. The concepts presented in the great man theory have been discussed in this paper. Thomas Carlyle, a historian in nineteenth century presented the great man theory in which he focused on the leadership theme. Carlyle believes that leaders are born and not made. These qualities include wisdom, passion, and competence. It could be concluded, that even the ideas and thoughts of modern scholars have drifted away from the idea of the great man theory, yet some of the ideas presented in the theory on leadership are still valued and admired by a select group of individuals.

Bass, Bernard. “Bass & Stodgill’s Handbook of Leadership.” 3rd Ed. New York. The Free Press 1990

Goleman, Daniel. “Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence”. Boston Harvard University Press. 2002

Kayworth, Turner. “Leadership effectiveness in global project teams.” Journal of Management Mowery, Delisle. “Inward technology transfer and
competitiveness: The role of national innovation systems” Journal of Economics 19(1): 67. 2003

Zaleznik, Abraham. “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review, March-April 1992, p: 126.

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