great man theory of leadership examples
Akonnor Owusu Larbi @ University of Professional Studies – Accra (2014)

The Great man theory simply refers to the impact of great men or heroes, highly influential persons who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, attitude or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

The great man theory dated back to 1840’s when the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle stated, ”the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This statement threw light on his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and inspirations.

In 1860, Herbert Spencer brought an argument to counter the statement of Thomas Carlyle.Herbert Spencer emphasized that such a great men are the products of their societies and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their very lifetime.

This brings to my knowledge that two well respected writers, Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer argue on a motion, “If Great Men became great from ordinary people because of what they did to society to shape the world or Great men are great men because of what they have enjoyed from the society-Societal beneficiaries.


The Assumptions

  1. Leaders are born with special traits and not made.
  2. Leaders are made when there is a need.

The reason for noting great “man” is that, during the early years/ages, there were to say table of men. Men discussed issues, strategies, plan and projects delivery. It is therefore to be accepted and understood that most leaders were male and the thought of a great woman was not concern with leadership skills.


Simply to put, Thomas Carlyle formulated that great men are born leaders, leadership is an inborn quality and that inborn leaders built the world. Herbert on the other hand argues that great men are not born but made by the society the live in. He throws light on how leadership can be experienced when the need arises. That the environment makes people great. This to my (Akonnor Owusu Larbi) opinion that Herbert Spencer connected great man theory to Darwinism. What do you think?

For us to know if the true leaders are born or made, we must question ourselves and seek answers:

  1. Do all leaders have certain type of characteristics, behaviour or attributes? This question will lead us to trait theory.
  2. Who is a great man and who is an effective leader?
  3. Are all leaders considered great men?
  4. If so, what about women in power who are leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and President Ellen Sirleaf, President of Liberia? Are they great men? Where they born to be chancellor and President or society made them?
  5. Who is a leader?

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