Select Page

Throughout history, people have tried to answer the question: what makes a great leader? Arguments arose from this question, addressing the distinction between nature vs. nurture, and whether a person is born with leadership abilities, or learns them from their environment. There are many theories of leadership and what makes a great leader. Most of said theories are based in analyzing historical leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Adolf Hitler. When this analysis becomes a theory based on inborn traits of one man compared to another, that is the Great Man Theory of leadership.

The Argument

The Great Man Theory was created at a time where men, and primarily military men, were studied as subjects for what makes a successful leader. One man who had a strong influence on shaping this theory was Thomas Carlyle. In the 19th century, Carlyle suggested that history is made up of a string of biographies of the great men to impact change in our world; a notion that supported the Great Man Theory. Two proponents that are key in the Great Man Theory are first, that great men have inborn tendencies towards leadership, and secondarily, that great men rise to a position of leadership when the world needs them most. Sound a lot like a superhero, doesn’t it?  These shared and innate characteristics include charisma, military prowess, intelligence, political skill, and so on. Based off the notion, “great men are born, not made”, the Great Man Theory aligns with Greek Scholar Plato’s argument that people’s characteristics are innate, not learned.

The Other Side

The opposing side typically argues in favor of nurture, or learned behavior. However, there are many schools of thought that suggest a hybrid where both nature and nurture play a role in determining an individual’s personality and characteristics (a notion widely accepted across scholarship). It is popular to argue against the Great Man Theory, proposing that leaders are molded by their environment. The counterargument gains traction because it leaves more room for anyone to become a leader, rather than a select few. The theory also almost entirely discounted women as having potential for leadership.

Implications Today

Today, it is more widely accepted that leaders have both some aspect of innate characteristics that lend themselves towards leadership, as well as an upbringing that sculpt them into the role more definitively. Each person may not have “what it takes” to be a leader, however modern notions of leadership break the traditional mold, arguing in favor that leadership comes in many different shapes and forms. You don’t have to be born with charisma and political prowess, nor do you have to be born under circumstances that would prompt you to rise from the ashes and lead a desperate group of people to safety. Leadership can appear in small facets of life, day in and day out.