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Great Man Theory Of Leadership Essay For College

Great Man Theory and Trait Theory of Leadership!

1. Great Man Theory of Leadership:

One of the early notions of leadership, which is still popular in certain circle, is that leadership is an inborn quality.

This is the Great Man Theory of leadership which asserts that leaders in general and great leaders in particular are born and not made. According to the theory, leadership calls for certain qualities like charm, persuasiveness, commanding personality, high degree of intuition, judgment, courage, intelligence, aggressiveness and action orientation which are of such a nature that they cannot be taught or learnt in a formal sense.

One either has them or does not have them. Leadership qualities are carried in the genes. In other words, they are inborn, or- something inherited in family from generation-to-generation. Examples are drawn from such great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Tse Tung, Kamal Ataturk, Abraham Lincoln, General de Gaulle and others. They were born natural leaders with built-in qualities of leadership and attained greatness by divine design.

It is said that history is nothing but the biographies of great men and women. They were the ones who made history. They were great leaders of their time. It is contended that such men would have become leaders in any case because they were inherently endowed with leadership traits and skills.

They were not trained in leadership nor did they acquire any leadership skills in their lives; such skills were natural to them. In other words, there was something in their anatomy, physiology and personality which marked them out from the common mass of mortals. They had an instinctive urge to assume leadership and had an inborn will to achieve greatness and success. People turned to them instinctively for inspiration, solace and support.

The further implications of the theory that leaders are born and not made, are as follows:

(i) Leaders are gifts of God to mankind. A measure of divinity is attributed to leaders and their actions.

(ii) Everyone cannot aspire to become a leader and to attain greatness.

(iii) The inborn leadership qualities alone are necessary and sufficient for a leader to exercise influence over his followers and to become successful.

(iv) Leadership qualities and effectiveness are independent variables. Situational factors like the nature and needs of followers, the demands of task and the general socio­economic environment have little or no influence on a leader’s emergence or effectiveness.

(v) The theory discounts the belief that individuals can be trained for assuming leadership positions and roles. Leadership qualities cannot be transmitted through education and exposure.

The Great Man Theory of leadership is similar to the notion of divine right of kings to reign and rule over their subjects on a perpetual hereditary basis. Kings were supposed to acquire their legitimacy from God Himself. Similarly, some individuals were destined to become great leaders on their own because God gave them certain inimitable abilities of a divine nature.

In fact, the Great Man Theory dates back to the ancient Greek and Roman times when leadership used to be correlated with certain peculiar mental, physical and personality characteristics. Because leaders were thought to be born, a measure of divinity used to be attributed to them and their behaviour.

The theory carries some credibility to the extent that leaders in general and great leaders in particular have certain mystique about them and are viewed with awe by their followers. The qualities and actions of such leaders inspire implicit respect, at-least in some respects. The incidence and effectiveness of some great individuals who become leaders just like that without any tutelage and training were inexplicable in any way other than by genetic theory.

Critique of the Theory:

It is clear that the Great Man theory has no scientific basis and empirical validity. It is more of a speculative piece of notion. The great weakness of the Great Man Theory, apart from the improbability of inherent traits, is the absurd belief that some people become great and successful leaders independent of their environmental situations. The Great Man Theory is totally rejected by many modern theorists and even by some leaders themselves.

The reasons are not far to seek and they are listed as under:

(i) There is nothing inborn, divine or mysterious about leadership qualities. Born leaders are imaginary characters. The so called born leaders tend to be misfits in the modern complex fast changing conditions. If at all there are born leaders, they are freaks of nature; their availability is negligible, unreliable and cannot meet the growing demands of society for effective leadership in all spheres of activities.

(ii) Leaders are ordinary mortals who happen to acquire certain characteristics and skills useful for influencing other people. Leadership qualities can be acquired and sharpened by anyone through proper education, training and exposure.

(iii) Leadership qualities and traits by themselves are not sufficient for achieving effectiveness. Situational factors, in conjunction with leadership skills and qualities, have considerable influence on both the emergence and effectiveness of leaders.

(iv) The genetic or great man theory of leadership does not provide a scientific, verifiable and predictable explanation of why, how and when leaders emerge and become effective, what are the critical qualities needed for achieving greatness in leadership, and why as between two leaders of comparable qualities, one becomes effective and the other fails.

A somewhat moderate viewpoint is that one may not totally rule out the genetic or inborn nature of some leadership attributes. Just as there are some ‘precocious’ and almost born singers, artists and geniuses in various spheres of activity, there could also be born leaders—those individuals who demonstrate leadership qualities right from their early age and who possess a considerable amount of intuitive wisdom.

It is also argued that great leaders, by virtue of their sheer ‘magic’, bend situational factors to their advantage; hence situational factors have little independent influence on leadership effectiveness. Another point of argument is that leaders are made’ out of those individuals who possess certain basic leadership attributes. The latter are allowed to sharpen and develop through education and training processes.

Qualities or Traits of a Good Leader:

The trait theorists identified a long list of qualities which leaders possess. The following list is only illustrative and not exhaustive.

2. Trait Theory of Leadership:

A modification of the Great Man Theory is the Trait Theory which argues that leadership qualities or traits can be acquired. They need not always be inborn. The trait theory of leadership states that there are certain identifiable qualities or characteristics that are unique to leaders and those good leaders possess such qualities to some extent. Leadership qualities may be inborn or they may be acquired through training and practice.

(i) Intelligence:

Good leaders should be intelligent enough to understand the context and content of their position and function, to grasp the dynamics of environmental variables, both internal and external, which affect their activities and to have a good perspective of the present and future dimensions of their organisation.

(ii) Personality:

This is not to be confused with physical appearance, though it is important. More than outward appearance, certain inner-personality qualities mark out good leaders from others. Such qualities include: emotional stability and maturity, self-confidence, decisiveness, strong drive, optimism, extrovertness, achievement orientation, purposefulness, discipline, skill in getting along with others, integrity in character and a tendency to be cooperative.

These qualities tend to help leaders to organise and coordinate human effort, to guide and motivate people in task situations, to make sound decisions, to achieve concrete results and goals, to resolve conflict and to manage organisational change.

(iii) Other qualities:

Apart from intelligence and personality attributes, good leaders also possess a few key qualities like open mindedness, scientific spirit, social sensitivity, ability to communicate, objectivity, an abiding interest in people, pragmatism and a sense of realism.

Ralph Stogdill:

who did extensive research on leadership qualities, suggests that effective leaders can be seen as having a strong drive for responsibility, task orientation, vigour and persistence pursuit of goals, venturesomeness, originality, problem solving skills, drive to exercise initiative in social situations, self-confidence and a sense of personal identity, willingness to accept consequences of decisions and action, readiness to absorb interpersonal stress, ability to influence other persons and the capacity to structure social interaction systems to the purpose at hand. The list of leadership qualities is almost endless.

Although possession of the above qualities does not guarantee success for a leader, all we say is that they increase the probability of success and enable the leader to interact and cope with situations more effectively. However, serious deficiencies in the above qualities may be disastrous for leaders.

For example, persons who are indecisive and indifferent do not make good leaders. It is quite possible that presence of some vital qualities in a marked degree may offset the absence or deficiency of other qualities. For example, a higher achievement orientation may to some extent compensate for deficiency in tolerance and objectivity.


The trait theory is described as out-dated by many modern theorists.

Its basic validity is questioned on several accounts:

1. It is not based on any research or systematic development of concepts and principles. It is more a speculative theory which fails when subjected to empirical tests. It is only descriptive theory on how some people emerge as leaders. It has few explanatory and predictive properties.

2. It is not possible to isolate a specific set of traits which can be consistently applied to leadership across a range of situations: cases can be cited to prove that mere possession of certain traits is not enough for one to become a leader. Nor does the absence of the called traits prevent individuals from emerging and proving their worth as leaders.

3. The trait theory does not try to relate particular traits to performance and behaviour effectiveness of leaders. Some traits tend to cancel out each other. For example, pragmatism and possession of ethical sense of right and wrong do not always go together. Traits which are needed for maintaining leadership are different from those which are needed for acquiring leadership.

4. An individual’s traits do not make up his total personality, nor do they fully reveal about attitudes, values, aspirations and behaviour.

5. The trait theory is inward-looking towards the leader alone to the exclusion of the group of followers and the task situation, which are in fact more important for leader effectiveness.

6. There is no way of systematically defining and measuring the incidence and intensity of traits among persons purported to be leaders. Nor is it possible to position the traits along a hierarchy of importance.


This paper strives to discuss the ideas presented in ‘The Great Man Theory’, presented by Thomas Carlyle, a historian of nineteenth century. Focus of the theory is leader and leadership. The basic theme of the theory is that leaders are born and not made. In other words the qualities of leaders are innate and intrinsic. Contemporary ideas on leadership, most of them contrary, have also been discussed to present both sides of picture.

Basic Theme of the Theory

Thomas Carlyle, a historian in nineteenth century presented his ideas on leadership and great men, branded as ‘The Great Man Theory’. Carlyle had focused on the influence great men had on historical events. He meticulously described the influence of some grand personalities such as Mohammad, Shakespeare, and Napoleon among others.

The basic theme of ‘The Great Man Theory’ is that “Leaders are born and not made.” (Bass) Research made 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 form the aristocratic class, very few belonging to lower classes had the rare opportunity to lead. This aspect contributed to the belief that leadership is generally related with aristocracy or upper class. (Bass)

The idea presented in the great man theory also revolves around this myth, with certain notions that a great man would magically rise. It is easy to verify this theme by highlighting the role played by the people such as Churchill and Eisenhower; or further back in the history, even to Mohammad, Moses, Jesus and the Buddah. Moreover, the discussion on gender issues is also not found in the great man theory as most of the leaders at that time were male and to think a woman as leader was not viewed a popular and accepted notion. (Mowery 67)

Concept of Leadership in the Theory

The Great man theory narrates the influence of ‘Great Men’ on history. The main reason of the impact by great men on the history, as per the concepts presented in the theory, is due to personal traits of the leaders such as wisdom, passion, charisma, eloquence, competence and trust etc. The great man theory has received considerable attention ever since presented by Carlyle. Such huge and continuous attention is due to phenomenon that history or events of history are mostly related and written with heavy reference to great men. The significance of great man theory is also due to relationship of organizational performance with the personalities in top position. 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 7)

The theory hypothesizes that great men continue to remain as the great personalities over a period of time. Different sessions and events in which great men are involved have a higher product rate of agreement and suggestion. Moreover, great men show a huge extent of solidarity and cohesion in the events full of fearfulness and nervousness.

The great man theory asserts that the most elusive and intangible quality of great man is ‘leadership’. A general consensus persisted at the time of Carlyle that leaders are exclusively different from their followers. Carlyle also believes that providence or fate was a primary determinant for the major events of history. The argument that leaders are born and not made was generally accepted and acknowledged not only by the scholars but also by those who endeavored to influence the attitude of others.

Emergence of Contingency and Behavioral Theories

The individuals in each community possess distinctive levels of energy, moral force and intelligence. Moreover, masses are always led by the leaders. The proponents of this theory highlight the personalities such as Martin Luther King, Lee Iacocca and Douglas MacArthur as the particular role models of great men whose inborn capabilities have been associated with situational forces.

For the last fifty years, contingency theories and behavioral theories have dominated the literature as the focus of scholars has shifted away from the great man theory. However, there are some scholars who still consider the notion that leaders are born and not made. They are of the view that leadership is, in fact, not a learned skill but is intrinsic and has strong relations with natural forces.

It is evident from exploring the foundations of theory that biographies and life histories of great men sometimes endeavor to reveal that they had entered the world with exclusive genetic endowment and somehow their future role of leadership was preordained. The critics of this theory believe that it is just a myth and not true. They believe that major competencies and capacities of leadership can be taught and learned as everybody has a desire to learn and do not suffer from the effects of learning disorders.

The great man theory emphasizes the role of leaders and Carlyle stresses that few people possess distinctive and idiosyncratic features. Leaders being genius and intellectual have the required set of qualities to succeed. Leadership, in fact, is an unrelenting and demanding job with grave responsibilities and enormous pressures. It would be a philosophical disservice to leaders to hypothesize that they are just ordinary persons who were in the right place just at the right time.

Views of Aristotle

The theory states that individual matters in the realm of leadership. Aristotle in Book I of his politics had also proposed that such distinction is derived from the laws of nature. Although, this theme is currently being criticized, especially the suggestions made by Aristotle that women are inferior, by nature, to men. He advocates the notion that rank is specifically determined through the advanced strength of implied virtue, competence, knowledge, ability and talent. Such virtues, according to Aristotle, are by nature a condition of birth.

Managers Vs Leaders

The proponents of great man theory support the idea that ability to lead is inborn and natural and cannot be created. The role of leader to lead is directly associated with the leader’s personality. As per views presented in the theory, Managers and leaders are not the same. As managers seem to favor maintaining the condition of status quo, the leaders strives for novelty and innovation taking all possible risks. (Zaleznik 126)

Leaders seems to have specific traits that are common with artists, as far as creativity and originality is concerned, than do with managers. Leaders are distinctive in personal history, motivation and the ways in which they think as well as act. They also differ in their sense of self, conception of work and their relations with others. The distinction between leadership and management can be explained by narrating the phenomenon that managers confronts with complexity whereas the leadership is mostly coping with change. It is further stated that leadership and management are distinct processes but not necessarily the people. The advocates of theory firmly believe that management evolves into leadership when it matures.

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. Advocates of the great man theory firmly believe that irrespective of the fact that leaders posses innate talent, in absence of any timely materialization of situational forces they are not able to become leaders. The examples to support such arguments are that without any disorder in the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheranism would have not existed today. Moreover, without Hitler, it would not have been possible for Churchill to achieve the unachievable. Also, without any racial tension in the U.S., Martin Luther King would just have remained a minster in the South.

Relationship of Transformational Leadership with Theory

The current rise in the popularity of the phrase ‘transformational leadership’ also supports the notion that leaders are born and not made, as argued in the theory by Carlyle. Transformational leaders accomplish success by charm, charisma, vision and magnetism. Charisma is, in fact an essential ingredient of leadership.

The transformational leadership aspects of individual consideration, charisma and intellectual inspiration are related more closely to perceived effectiveness as compared with transactional issues. Charismatic leaders transform enthusiasm of people about different assignment, command respect, inculcate loyalty and have a special inborn gift of viewing what is significant. They also have a specific sense of mission. Followers of the leaders have complete faith in those leaders who had charisma. They feel satisfied and proud to be associated with the leaders. Leaders have the capability to resolve any obstacle. (Bass)

The idea of transformational leadership, as discussed above, matches with the major theme of great man theory. The transformational leadership has; Charisma that provides sense of mission and vision, gains trust and respect; instills pride; create inspiration that communicates high level of expectations, uses signs to concentrate efforts and expresses significant purposes in easy and straightforward manner; intellectual stimulation that promotes rationality, intelligence and careful solving of problems; individualized consideration which provides personal attention, advises and coaches.

Intrinsic Traits of Leaders

Defining charisma seems to be more complex than defining leadership. The distinctive feature of charisma is a gift, talent- even a supernatural talent, according to some scholars including Carlyle. Consequently, the theory strongly asserts that leaders are born having such mystical patterns and are different significantly from their followers. As such it is pertinent to discuss some of the inborn patterns or features of the leaders as the theory suggests.

Personal Factors: Cognitive- pluralist, radical and unitary ideologies, orientation of social domination: Motivational- authoritarianism: Moral- egalitarianism and moral development along with moral scope

Situational Factors: Deep structures- norms, roles, history, distribution of wealth and hierarchy: Goal Interdependence; and Culture.

Perspectives seem to differ in many ways that establishment of leadership is conceptualized in the great man theory. It is, however, possible to view the concept of leadership mainly in terms of comparatively stable and enduring features of people. The Leadership can be perceived as a quantifiable and measurable property that is possessed in variety of amounts by different people. On the other hand it is also possible to concentrate on observable behavior of leaders instead of inherent traits. From such a viewpoint leadership primarily exist in the leader’s naturally-built actions. Leadership is viewed in terms of intrinsic characteristic or property rather than in terms of explicit behavior patterns.

From mid-nineteenth century to the decade of 1940, the research on leadership was dominated by efforts to exhibit that there are intrinsic characteristics or qualities possessed by leaders that distinguish them from followers. The research was directed to identify that inborn abilities are ultimately the spirit of effective and successful leadership. Studies focused on the quantification and measurement of leadership traits and the specific relationship that exist between criteria and traits of leader effectiveness.

Leadership was not perceived as an autonomous property that was entirely separate and distinct from the other trait names that are used in language to recognize differences that exist among people. On the other hand leadership was perceived as a theoretical property, the survival of which was explicable in relations with other fundamental or basic instinctive traits differentiating individuals.

History- A Biography of Great Men

The great men of history or the history’s hero, the expressions used in the great man theory claims that the entire process of history is primarily governed by the deeds and actions of great individuals. This contention encapsulated by the famous dictum of Carlyle is that the history, in fact, is the biography of some great men. (Bass)

However his nineteenth century opponents- Tolstoy, Herbert Spencer and Engels- argued that history was determined by some other specific elements such as social or economic relations, the personalities wielding strength being themselves the instruments or products of society; as such, if Napoleon did not exist then it would be safely argued that social and economic relations also would have produced a similar type of replacement. Moreover, the history would have ultimately occurred as it specifically did even without Napoleon. (Goleman, 3)

In spite of this intrinsic interest of complexities regarding the role of a person in history, arguments on these issues have seemed to be vitiated by; uncritically straightforward themes of historical causation; failures to differentiate between the sufficient and necessary conditions of events; and divergences in the overall criteria applied for assessing the extent and nature of social influence.


It is pertinent to discuss some of the view points and arguments presented against the great man theory. Prior to the middle of 20th century, the theme presented by the great man theory had an exclusive impact on one elusive notion; leadership. However, the significance of the great man theory has lost considerably, specifically after the middle of twentieth century. The main reasons for this downfall of ideas presented in the theory were the development of behavioral sciences. The scholars have now directed their concentration and activities elsewhere. The contingency and behavioral theories continue to dominate the literature. Most of the modern scholars are of the view that the idea; leaders are born, is just a myth. They accentuate that leadership is, in fact, a learned skill and has low connections with natural forces.

Modern day scholars firmly believe that the effectiveness of leaders is basically influenced by the environmental forces rather intrinsic abilities. They emphasize that leaders have a little impact over technological factors; they also do not determine the significant socio-cultural alterations in their communities. The decisions made by leaders are conditioned directly by the wave of the world economy. Similarly, leaders seem to be helpless when they face some exigencies such as natural disaster. They rarely exercise control over external forces, rather they just provide necessary support as they endeavor to adapt to the context in which they could find themselves.


The concepts presented in the great man theory have comprehensively been discussed in the paper. Thomas Carlyle, a historian in nineteenth century presented the great man theory in which he focused on the leadership theme. Carlyle is of the opinion that leaders are born and not made. In fact, the leadership qualities are intrinsic. These qualities include wisdom, passion, charisma, eloquence and competence. It could be concluded, that even the ideas and thoughts of modern scholars have drifted away from the essence of the great man theory, yet some of the robust ideas presented in the theory on leadership are still valued and admired by a segment of intellectuals.

Works Cited

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

Heifetz, Reids. “Leadership on the Line - Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.” Boston Harvard University Press. 2006

Kayworth, Turner. “ Leadership effectiveness in global project teams.” Journal of Management

Information Systems, 18(3), 7. 2005

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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