The Great Man theory – is it still relevant in today’s business environment?

17 Aug 2021 | News

In this article, Ingenium CEO Dr. James Ring discusses the Great Man Theory of leadership and its relevance in the modern business world. 

man looking out window

Unpacking the theories of leadership: The Great Man Theory.

The name of this theory alone is controversial, but it was created at a different time, it is an old theory. However, its legacy lingers today as unfortunately we still see that men and women are treated differently in the world of leadership. Moving past the title, its real philosophy is that leaders are born, not made!

Great man theories assume the capacity and ability of leadership are inherent. Prior to the 20th century, this theory held sway in the minds of those trying to seek a definition of leadership. Because there was consensus that leaders differed from their followers, and that fate or providence was a major determinant of the course of history, the contention that leaders are born not made was widely accepted (Cawthon 1996).

“The history of the world,…., is the history of Great Men; they created what the masses could accomplish” (Bass, 1990, p. 37).

The Great Man Theory and Evolution

An interesting idea of early theorists advanced the point of view that leadership was directly related to inheritance. It was suggested that strong leaders survived and produced an aristocratic class that was biologically superior to others. This idea can be linked to the common misconception of Darwinian theories of evolution. The highly popular interpretation of the Darwinian theory of evolution favours the survival of the toughest over the weak, instead of the survival of the most adaptive as Darwin intended (Lawrence & Pirson 2014).

Great Man Theories often portrait leaders as mythical, heroic figures who rise to lead the masses. “Great man” itself is used because during the 19th-century leadership was seen as primarily a male quality, especially among the military (Malos n.d.).

Personality traits & Leadership

It is more widely accepted that a leader needs the correct personality traits, they must also exist in an environment that allows them to capitalise on these traits. Proponents of the Great Man Theory believe that regardless of the innate talents, potential leaders might possess, without timely emergence of situational factors they will not become leaders. Sociologist Herbert Spencer suggested that the leaders were products of the society in which they lived. In The Study of Sociology, Spencer 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 into which that race has slowly grown. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him”.

Whilst it is clear that there has to be a relationship between leaders and followers, and yes there are certainly situational forces in play that allow a person to emerge as a leader, it has to be accepted that there is an obvious need to explain the fact that some people are born with leadership abilities that others do not have and will have a head start on others without them hence we must look to the Great Man Theory to explain this.

Nature or Nurture

From science, we are taught that the person is influenced by two things, their Genotype (genetic makeup) and their Phenotype (the environment they grow up in). Let’s say a person is genetically predisposed to be small, then no amount of calcium and nutrient rich foods are going to overrule their genetic and make them tall. However, if a person is born with the genes to be tall, but is malnourished as a child, chances are they may not grow to the full height their genes will allow them to. But if that same child does get the right nutrients growing up, they will reach their genetically allowable height.

It’s the same for leaders, you need the genetic building blocks of leadership, but you also need to grow up in an environment where you receive the nutrients such as being educated, encouraged, and supported by a loving family, given opportunities to be involved in teams from a young age to understand those types of dynamics etc. The combination of both gives you a better chance of being a great leader and let’s be clear, it’s got nothing to do with having a Y chromosome or a lack thereof.

Great Man Theory & Women

In the Great Man theory, women leaders were virtually ignored. Credence was seldom bestowed upon women leaders such as Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, and other great female leaders; however, male leaders, such as Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and military leaders were hailed as esteemed great men.

The theory does highlight the discrepancy in both the perception and treatment of male and female leaders. Women are playing catch up because for so long, as the theory points out, women were ignored, and the ones that did show strong leadership, history has pushed to the side in favour of men. Thankfully the imbalance is starting to be addressed but there is a long way to go before it is back on a level playing field and that is because sexism still exists, biases still exist.

Change is coming, there should be no difference in the perception and treatment of male and female leaders, gender is not relevant, but women do need to put themselves forward for leadership positions more and more, and they should be supported and encouraged to do so, we will be a better society for this balance.

Interested in modern leadership? Why not read our article What makes a great leader? 

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