As a CEO interested in leadership, I naturally had to investigate the Great Man Theory of Leadership a bit further. The simplicity of the Great Man Theory can be charming, but it is detrimental for leadership as a skill and an art form.
What is the Great Man Theory of Leadership?
The Great Man Theory of Leadership states that leaders are born with certain traits, making them great men destined for leadership. The leader becomes a hero, which type depends on the circumstances of the world around them. Great Man Theory is unscientific and does not belong in modern leadership.
Who Created the Great Man Theory of Leadership?
Thomas Carlyle created the Great Man Theory of Leadership in 1841 through his speeches and the book “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History”.
This article provides a full explanation of the Great Man Theory, its six hero classes, and its pros and cons. You can also watch our Great Man Theory video if you want, it is available below, or continue reading or visit our leadership styles portal with multiple leadership frameworks and styles.
Explanation of the Great Man Theory of Leadership
The story of the Great Man Theory of Leadership starts in the 1840s when Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer, philosopher, historian, and teacher, presented Great Man Theory in a series of lectures. He also gave out the book “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History” in 1841. I have read segments of this book, and it is a difficult read with long sentences, older sentence structure, and the text is rather unprecise in general. It seems to be more of thoughts and philosophies poured onto paper than real non-fiction, factual literature.
The Great Man Theory stipulates that some people are born as truly exceptional people bound to become leaders. They will use the world and its events to find a way of becoming great leaders through one of six Hero Classes: Divine, Prophet, Poet, Priest, King, or Man of Letters. The Great Man Theory can be surprisingly attractive and luring, and some people get charmed by it, sometimes unwillingly[i].
According to the Great Man Theory of Leadership as defined by Carlyle, the class or type of Hero is less relevant since a genuinely Great Man will take the shape of Hero that he or she chooses. The class selection depends on the circumstances, surroundings, and settings prevailing at the time of birth and throughout their lives. Since Great Men are truly destined to become great leaders, they will assume any convenient shape to establish themselves as leaders. Regardless of the shape, they all possess fantastic qualities within poetry, leadership, inspiration, etc.
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In the end, if you believe Carlyle, the most important factor of the world is to be the setting for the Great Men to act in. The idea of the world as a canvas means that Napoleon became a King hero due to the prevailing circumstances. Had Napoleon been born in a different country or time, he would still have become a great leader, but perhaps a poet or a priest instead of an emperor.
The book on Hero Worship[ii] by Thomas Carlyle, where the Great Man Theory is described, is often very confusing. For example, Carlyle comments defensively on Hero Worship and that it will exist forever, I assume due to previous accusations. Still, he trivializes the concept by reducing being a hero to that of a sincere person. He asks whether we can all be heroes and says that such genuine Heroes are the true Hero worshippers.
In other areas, Carlyle is evident in his opinions: Carlyle felt that society was making it more difficult for Great Men to emerge, given the, as he calls it, Skeptical Dilettanitsm, which cripples Great Men, making people doubt in the unquestionable Leader. Carlyle strongly believed that those attitudes were temporary and that society will once again follow these great leaders without any lack of faith or doubt in their capabilities. Carlyle goes as far as stating that “All this of Liberty and Equality, Electoral suffrages, Independence and so forth, we will take, therefore, to be a temporary phenomenon, by no means a final one.” It sums up his view of the modern democratic approach rather well.
Carlyle speaks of sanculottism, a term born in the French revolution defined as the concept of revolution by the poor, especially with republican views and sympathies. Carlyle states that all such sanculottism will end through a Great Man such as Napoleon or Cromwell, a King hero, who brings order back and puts an end to the chaos.
Let’s end this Introduction with a quote from Carlyle’s book “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History”.
“For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”
The debate around the Great Man theory spawned additional studies into leaders, and likely help to get the trait theory of leadership research moving.
Characteristics and Qualities of a Great Man
According to the Great Man Theory, a Great Man has the following characteristics:
- They are charismatic and pleasant company. (Refer to our article for more info: Charismatic Leadership, available here: leadership styles.)
- They bring order to chaos.
- They are born with traits making them capable of becoming Great Men.
- They pick one out of six hero classes as an avenue of becoming a great leader, depending on what the world looks like during their time.
The Great Man Theory: The Six Classes of Heroes
The Great Man Theory stipulates that a true Leader belongs to one of the following six classes of heroes:
The Divine Hero
In his book, Carlyle defines the Divine Hero as viewed or perceived as a God or being an actual God. There are plenty of examples of divine heroes in Greek and Norse mythology, of which the latter receives a lot of attention by Carlyle with examples such as Odin, Thor, etc. The Great Man Theory stipulates that the Divine Hero belongs to the past, to times without science, and new Great Men of this hero class do not emerge in modern times.
The Prophet Hero
The Prophet Hero of the Great Man Theory is the Hero seen as an envoy, messenger, or similar, for God or Gods. As in the case of the Divine Hero, the Prophet Hero belongs to the past, and new ones cannot emerge in modern times, at least if you believe the Great Man Theory. The Prophet Hero is perceived to be in contact with divine authorities, which legitimates following the Prophet Hero. Carlyle mentions Jesus and Moses as examples of Prophet heroes.
The Poet Hero
The Great Man Theory states that the Poet Hero is a Hero of all ages, older times, and modern times. The Poet is described as a thinker, a heroic warrior, politician, and philosopher in combination. According to Carlyle, the Poet and the Prophet Heroes are similar, but with one significant distinction: The Poet Hero teaches us what we are to love, whereas the Prophet Hero reveals what we should do. The Poet thinks with “musical thought”, another example of how vague Carlyle is.
The Priest Hero
Carlyle mentions Martin Luther as an example of a Great Man being a Priest. Although Luther can be seen as quite the revolutionary character, instilling a lot of change to the current order. Carlyle regards this as bringing order to chaos in this case.
The King Hero
The King hero of the Great Man Theory is also a Hero that brings order to the world. The King Hero is a commander of men, who people are loyal to and benefit from following. Carlyle mentions how Napoleon brought order to the chaotic French revolution. I can only assume that Carlyle means King as an autocrat or dictator, all be it a person of good character, at least in the view of Carlyle. Compare with Autocratic Leadership Style, which has a hero, or prophet type version of it, as the strong and commanding Leader who saves everyone from destruction. (You can read more in our leadership styles portal.)
The Man of Letters Hero
Rosseau is an example of The Man of Letters type hero. The Man of Letters Hero describes, with inspiration, what man is capable of achieving. This Hero possesses originality, sincerity, and genius. The description of the Man of Letters type hero resembles the description of the Poet quite a lot. Carlyle states that the Man of Letters replaces the Poet since the latter is part of olden times, directly contesting his definition of the Poet hero belonging to all eras. The Man of Letters hero is very much dependent on printing technologies enabling books for spreading his message, making this the newest hero class.
Great Man Theory of Leadership: Criticism
Here is some of the criticism towards the Great Man Theory of Leadership.
Herbert Spencer and The Great Man Theory
Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist, heavily criticized the Great Man Theory already back in the 1800s. He challenged Carlyle’s theory for lacking a scientific approach and concluded that the environment created the leaders, and being great by birth was pure non-sense.
Tolstoy and The Great Man Theory
In his book War and Peace, Tolstoy criticizes the Great Man Theory by stating that any statement of the significance of specific individuals is pure imagination.
The Great Man Theory of Leadership: Examples
List of examples of leaders according to the Great Man Theory of Leadership:
- Napoelon Bonapare, a King hero leader
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Man of Letter hero leader
- Martin Luther, a Priest hero leader
- Oliver Cromwell, a King hero leader
- Odin, a Divine hero leader
- Thor, a Divine hero leader
- Moses, a prophet hero leader
- Shakespeare, a Poet hero leader
- Homer, a Poet Hero leader
- James Burns, a Poet Hero leader
- Dante, a Poet Hero leader
For more information on the above Great Man Theory heroes, refer to the hero class descriptions above.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Great Man Theory
The Great Man Theory is a historical approach to leadership that has been debunked many times over. Hence, it is a stretch to connect advantages and disadvantages to this theory if you ask me. It would be like asking for the strengths and weaknesses of the theory that the world is flat.
I’ve put words to some pros and cons of the Great Man Theory I find relevant.
Here are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Great Man Theory of Leadership by Thomas Carlyle.
Advantages of the Great Man Theory
I do not think there are many advantages to be honest, but let us see what we got. Here is a list of the strengths of the Great Man Theory:
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- The theory helped to bring focus on leadership and the elements of it
- The theory was heavily criticized, furthering the leadership debate in the 1800s
Disadvantages of the Great Man Theory
It is easier to come up with weaknesses, and some of them are true deal-breakers for this theory. Here is a list of disadvantages of the Great Man Theory:
- No scientific research supports the Great Man theory
- The theory assumes leaders are born, removing the possibility and ambition of learning how to become a leader
- The simplicity of the theory is attractive to people desperate for leadership, which is why cult leaders often use similar ways of asserting power
You can learn about many other old theories at our leadership styles portal. Here are some examples:
- Max Weber’s Classification of Authority
- The Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles
- The Ohio State Leadership Studies and the Michigan University Studies
- Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid
- Fiedler’s Contingency Model
“A Handbook of Leadership Styles”, Demirtas and Karaca, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.