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Great Man Leadership Theory: Modern Implications for an Outdated Concept?


Introduction and History

The Great Man theory, as the name implies, dates back to the mid-19th century when Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish historian, proposed that certain men are born with innate leadership traits. Carlyle argued that these “great men” were destined to rise when faced with the right circumstances, therefore shaping the course of history.


The Great Man theory posits that leaders are born, not made. It suggests that great leaders possess innate qualities that set them apart from others, and these traits are inherent rather than learned. This theory places a strong emphasis on the individual’s personal attributes, like courage, intelligence, or charisma, with less consideration given to their skills, education, or context.

Practical Examples and Case Studies

Historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill are often cited as examples of the Great Man theory. These leaders exhibited unique traits that set them apart and allowed them to lead their countries through pivotal periods.

Academic Insights

The Great Man theory has been influential in the development of the trait approach to leadership, a theory that asserts that leaders possess a set of inherent traits that make them effective. These traits often include characteristics like self-confidence, intelligence, determination, integrity, and sociability.

Critical Analysis

The Great Man theory has been critiqued for its lack of inclusivity and potential for bias, as it often places an emphasis on the leadership traits typically associated with males in Western society. It also overlooks external factors that might contribute to a leader’s effectiveness, such as their relationships, culture, and situational contexts.  Whilst on the face of it, it seems as an outdated theory, it’s still argued that it applies, with Trump being a topical example. 

Future Outlook

Despite these criticisms, the theory remains influential, as shown by the continuing interest in the personal traits of effective leaders. However, leadership thinking has evolved to acknowledge the importance of context and the ability to learn and develop leadership skills, suggesting that the “Great Man” is not the only path to effective leadership.


The Great Man theory, while influential in the initial understanding of leadership, has been supplemented by more nuanced theories that recognize the complex interplay between personal traits, learned skills, and contextual factors in leadership. Nevertheless, the theory’s focus on innate traits continues to shape the way we think about and identify potential leaders.

Further Reading and Resources

Book: “Handbook of Research on Innate Leadership Characteristics” Matthew Waritay Guah

Article: “The Personalities of Politicians: A Big Five Survey of American Legislators” by David C. Funder and Robert I. Ozer (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

Video: TED Talk: “The surprising truth about what motivates us” by Dan Pink

Podcast: The Art of Manliness – “The Character Traits of Great Leaders”

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