The Great Man Theory of Leadership

The Great Man Theory of Leadership, What is it? Definition, explanation, and summary

The Great Man Theory of Leadership

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 ly 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:

  1. They are charismatic and pleasant company. (Refer to our article for more info: Charismatic Leadership, available here: leadership styles.)
  2. They bring order to chaos.
  3. They are born with traits making them capable of becoming Great Men.
  4. They pick one six hero classes as an avenue of becoming a great leader, depending on what the world looks 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.

For us normal people, who are not born as leaders, it might be a better idea to create a leadership development plan and study and learn leadership styles.

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 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

Further Reading

You can learn about many other old theories at our leadership styles portal. Here are some examples:


[i] [ii]

“A Handbook of Leadership Styles”, Demirtas and Karaca, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Great Man Theory and Trait Theory of Leadership

The Great Man Theory of Leadership

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 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 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 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 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’ 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 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 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.


Great Man Leadership Theory

The Great Man Theory of Leadership

The Great Man Theory states that leaders cannot be made but they are leaders by birth. Let’s read further to study the Great Man Theory in detail.

1. Introduction


The above quote reflects different great leaders in the history who witnessed the victory under their leadership as well as relates the outcome of one of the famous leadership theory.

Great Man Theory: The theory is the built-in characteristics or traits of leadership in an individual which clears if an individual is a successful leader by birth or not.

This theory ignores other factors education, experience, the behavior of an individual to be a great leader, and suggests that these are not required to be as a leader and can only shape leadership abilities.

The Great man theory is the belief that leaders cannot be made and they are leaders by birth only. A myth of this theory is that different situations or circumstances cause the rise of a great leader. It also states that leadership abilities are natural and they cannot be developed.

Extraordinary leaders possess all the qualities of successful leadership and also the role of a leader is challenging and demanding due to big responsibilities.

This theory treats leaders as heroes who provide others with the insights of right and wrong as well as these heroes bring change in society by great inventions and by encouraging their followers.

2. History

The great man theory was formulated in the 19th century and the concept is mainly attributed to a historian Thomas Carlyle.

The theory explains how history was affected by the influence of great men also called Heroes.

These heroes or great men are highly capable and are different people, who have different superior characteristics highly intellectual, courage heroes, etc., and due to this, they can leave a significant historical effect.

The behavior analysis mainly of militarians was done and the analysis this theory was conceptualized. The logic was also there behind its name as Great Man. As the 1800s century was commanded solely by men for authoritative positions and there was no such woman who could hold such type of position at that time, so the theory is considered as a great man theory.

One strong reason behind the rise of this theory is that very fewer leadership opportunities were there for people having little social status in the 19th century and research was the leaders who were already successful in their domains.

Thomas Carlyle further stated that successful leaders were a combination of divine inspiration and the right characteristics. Thomas also defined the Great Man concept in his various lectures which were heroes and heroism. He further published articles of Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History.

In these, he briefed on the great man’s leadership and provided analysis of these heroes of history and their influences Shakespeare, Napoleon, Muhammad, Luther, etc.

Among supporters of Great Man theory was Frederick Adams Woods who was an American scholar.

He also described different 12th-century rulers of Western Europe in his publication ‘The Influence of Monarchs’ in which he specified their influence on historical events.

3. Assumptions

There are two main assumptions on which Great Man theory is based.

A. Leaders cannot be made and are born only.

As per this assumption, the following aspects are considered:

  • Leaders are god gifted to the world. They have divine attributes that reflect their actions.
  • Individuals cannot be trained to become a leader and to have those characteristics of a great leader.
  • Leaders have sufficient inbuilt traits and abilities to lead and their success.
  • There is no relation of behavior or situational aspects in the leadership qualities and effectiveness of a leader.
  • Moreover, education and experience also cannot rise or increase leadership qualities.

B. Great leaders will come into existence as the need arises.

This assumption is the myth that if the appropriate situation demands, great leaders will rise.

4. Broader Perspective

Great Man theory is focused on born leaders. It suggests that leaders have all traits of leadership by birth i.e. Intelligence, confidence, communication skills, charisma, etc.

Writer Thomas Carlyle stated that the leadership qualities are inherent and effective leaders cannot be developed, they have leadership traits by birth.

As leadership abilities were demonstrated only by men at that time so it is named as Great Man Theory.

Though with time, it was considered as the great person theory due to the existence of great women leaders later Queen Elizabeth.

Leaders in this theory are depicted as Heroes, meant to rise as a leader when the need arises. It simply says that one cannot be trained for strong leadership as possesses certain traits and abilities to become a leader. Leadership traits are only god gifted to few.

This theory also supported certain myths effective leaders will come into existence as per situation or need arises. Few great leaders of history had certain unique qualities that made them a successful leader in their respective areas such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Alexander, Napoleon, etc.

These have some natural leadership qualities that distinguished them from others.

These people never received any leadership training and never got an opportunity to polish their leadership skills.

The theory defines there are different characteristics of great leaders by birth that distinguish them from general leaders i.e. intelligence, courage, intuition, activeness, etc. These are in-built to great leaders and inherited from family i.e. father to son by generations.

Moreover, these characteristics are either present in an individual or absent. This theory relates to the leadership style of ancient times of Greek and Romans. At that time also different personal characteristics were responsible for successful leadership.

These leaders didn’t get any training on leadership so their success was due to some divine factors.

5. Practical Implications

History is full of examples of great and successful leaders who created history with their exclusive leadership traits or characteristics. Leaders Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi are there to name a few.

Abraham Lincoln was the famous 16th U.S. president. He was a great and successful leader. During the civil war in the U.S.A., he protected the union and initiated the process to end slavery in the nation. His decisions had a great effect on the betterment of the social and economic welfare of U.S.A.

Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian is recognized as an effective leader of the 20th century. He led the nation and people through non-violent civil resistance for freedom. Under his leadership, India got independence in 1947. He was a true leader and a great man who became an inspiration for further leaders.

So these leaders are seen as natural born leaders who have some inherent qualities required to be effective leaders as both of them never went under any leadership training. Both had god gifted leadership traits.

In today’s scenario also, different effective leaders are generally considered having the required qualities naturally that are inherited. different executives at the top level, captains in sports who led a team have qualities that make them different from others.

Most of the time a son of an owner of a company is the one who leads the company further for its success as the general psychology of people says that leadership is in blood or inherited.

So up to some extent, human psychology still believes that successful leaders already have required leadership characteristics.

6. Criticism

The Great Man theory is criticized by different writers and researchers.

  • Herbert Spencer was one of the criticizers of the theory. According to his critics in 1896, great leaders can be looked at as only products of the society in which they were born and brought up also they have an impact on their social environment. So society is the one that has a contribution in shaping these as great men and which resulted in giving further shape to the society by them.
  • According to Novelist Tolstoy in 2010, the relevance of the Great Man theory is imagination. In actual, these great people are slaves of history by believing as divine intervention.
  • In-fact modern researchers, scientists also strongly rejected the great man concept. According to them, there is no scientific proof of the concept of theory and the born leader concept is just an imagination. Cherry in 2017 stated that great men can be developed also with the right education, experience, and by empowering them.

7. Significance

  • Different qualities and skills courage, aggressiveness, charming personality, enthusiasm, activeness, etc. cannot be taught to the leaders. Different leaders Alexander, Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon, and many more had leadership traits by birth and through which they succeeded in their respective domains as a leader.
  • The Great Man theory created fundamentals of leadership and characteristics of leaders, which further leadership theories are developed.
  • This theory identified great leaders of that time and their characteristics.

8. Limitations

The biggest issue of Great Man theory is that not everyone has inherited leadership traits to become a successful leader. If the concept of the theory is true, then all people with required leadership traits by birth could have assigned leadership roles.

But that’s not the scenario. Many factors create an impact on the leadership activities of a leader. Behavior, characteristics of leader and subordinates, situations, etc. collaborate in deciding the leadership styles of a leader as well as its effectiveness.

The limitations of Great Man theory are:

  • This theory is the blind faith of great leaders that happened in history. It only looked at the change in history by those leaders and there is no insight into the selfish motives and their real actions behind the change.
  • There is no great logic behind the theory. It is myth and assumptions.
  • This theory didn’t emphasize real heroes who had an important contribution to actual events happened under the leadership of great leaders. Link in the case of Abraham Lincoln who is famous for successfully leading the civil war in the U.S., he had a little role to play and other people who fight are not considered.
  • This theory considered only men as great leaders and avoided women having the potential to be a leader.
  • The theory didn’t consider childhood and upbringing of great leaders of that time and ignored the impact of environment, culture, and society on them in their development.
  • There are no scientific reasons or bases of this theory. Moreover, the concept of born leaders doesn’t match today’s complex business environment.
  • The Great Man theory is not able to specify the reason for different leaders having similar inborn qualities of leader still few are successful and others fail. So it means that there is no surety that one can be a great leader despite having all leadership qualities.

9. Conclusions

To conclude, the Great Man Theory is a born leader theory who is born to lead as they have inherent characteristics. The theory was criticized a lot due to the avoidance of impact of social environment on leadership and over-focus on the abilities of a leader.

This theory generated the interest of researchers in discovering more insights into leadership and a leader. Despite lots of criticism, this theory maintained its status for the guidance of leadership until the mid of the 20th century.

Further the emergence and growth of behavioral science, leadership is shaped as a scientific study later on that can be acquired.

Leaders, irrespective of by birth or made as a leader, who don’t have leadership qualities have to undergo leadership development training by engaging in the culture, environment and with people around them to become great leaders. Also, it is not necessary for a leader to be successful in all areas as he/she might have expertise in one particular domain to which he/she belongs to.

However, supporters of great man theory still believe that great leaders have god gifted qualities and these qualities cannot be gained.


Great Man Theory Of Leadership

The Great Man Theory of Leadership

Leadership has always been a topic of interest in the business world—the age old debate is centered on whether leaders are born or made. For years, theorists have argued about what it is that makes someone a great leader.

History is full of examples of people who’ve left their mark with exclusive leadership qualities. We view individuals Martin Luther King, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as being extraordinary because of their feats.

Several individuals became great leaders without any formal training or practice. The Great Man Theory proposes that people are born with innate qualities that make them successful leaders. What is the Great Man Theory? Read on to understand this theory in detail.

What Is Great Man Theory?

One of the earliest leadership theories, the Great Man Theory came to light in the 19th century. It was attributed to a historian named Thomas Carlyle, who developed it to a great extent.

He believed that ‘the history of the world is the biography of great men’. Effective leaders are ‘heroes’ with intellectual superiority, courage and significant influence on the masses.

These individuals were often dubbed as being society’s role models.

In a nutshell, the Great Man Theory of leadership suggests that some people are born to lead. Great leaders can’t be made because leadership qualities are innate. Characteristics charisma, intelligence, political skills and wisdom are some of the natural qualities of a successful leader.

Therefore, the theory centers on two main assumptions:

Inborn leadership qualities are enough for individuals to exercise influence over others. Everyone can’t aspire to become a leader and achieve greatness. For example, Mahatma Gandhi successfully led people through non-violent resistance because of his influence and tactful approach. 

Individuals become leaders when they respond to critical situations. The Great Man Theory examples include the torchbearers of the Indian Independence Movement. From Lala Lajpat Rai to Annie Besant, various leaders championed the nation’s cause.

Criticism Of The Great Man Theory

Several subsequent researchers and theorists heavily criticized the Great Man Theory. Here are some of the arguments that have been made against it.

  • Sociologist Herbert Spencer suggested that leaders were products of the society they lived in. Therefore, it’s a society that determines the greatness of a leader and not innate abilities. An individual’s environment is instrumental in shaping their qualities.

  • Leo Tolstoy, one of the most popular authors of all time rejected the idea of a great man. He suggested that this leadership theory is one’s imagination. Great men or leaders merely think that they drive the course of events. In reality, leaders create an illusion of power that influences others.

Limitations Of Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory of leadership emerged during a time when society was ruled by royal families and aristocrats. Some of the earliest research only looks at a section of society. The theory presents several limitations including the following.

  • It’s myths and assumptions with little logic to back it

  • It doesn’t consider external environments or situations that often influence human behavior and attitudes

  • There isn’t any guarantee that a person with all leadership qualities will eventually become a successful leader

  • There isn’t much insight into the motivation behind a leader’s actions; an individual may become a leader because of selfish motives

  • It ignores the contributions of others who drove a leader to success. For example, a producer or a writer is as important as a director to make a movie a success

  • The theory mainly considered men as great leaders and disregarded the importance of other genders. Gradually, with the emergence of non-male leaders, the Great Person Theory replaced the ‘man theory’


There isn’t any scientific basis for the Great Man Theory however you can’t deny that some individuals possess certain basic leadership attributes. Those attributes can be further developed through proper training and guidance.

Harappa Education’s Leading Self course will guide you on your path to realizing your true potential. The Ladder of Learning framework will teach you the different ways to gauge your competency and skills.

The Iceberg Model will help you overcome self-limitations and adopt a learning mindset. Identify your unique leadership style so you can become a confident leader who takes ownership and overcomes challenges.

Explore topics such as Leadership Theories, Opinion Leaders, Behavioral Theory, Great Man Theory, Transformational Leadership & Transactional Leadership from our Harappa Diaries section and lead on a path of self-development.


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