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Great Man Theory

There are two elements of the modern leadership movement’s characterization of leadership that have problematic consequences for how organizations are designed and how their executives behave.

One, often noted here, is that they argue that leadership is an individual characteristic provided to organizations from the top down. Never mind the discussions of empowerment and the like; the main problem is that leadership is believed by this movement to be provided by people possessed of special skills and/or qualities distinguishing them from other people who don’t have these.

The other problem, which we will return to briefly tomorrow, is that the movement has largely succeeded in promoting the contention that leadership is an individual function that is separate from and superior to management.

The combined result has been ever-worsening confusion about the role and characteristics required of senior executives. The principle concern is that far too much unchecked authority tends to be accorded to personages whose skills and qualities are identified as being distinctly and uniquely essential to the organization, which is largely populated by lesser mortals in need of this leadership to give their functions meaning and to enliven their actions. Some senior executives positively luxuriate in this sort of approach to themselves as individuals, and to their duties and powers.

Nevertheless, because it is fundamentally untrue, their results tend to be erratic. While, in retrospect, it is sometimes (though decidedly not always) possible to ascribe with some degree of confidence, their specific performance to their results, whatever these turned out to be (good or bad), it is not as reliably possible to relate these results to the “leadership style” they were presumed to possess. On those occasions where it seems that it is, it is my arguement that the object of critique is actually their management, and not their leadership, style.

It should be noted, though, that many executives do not thrive in the personally and organizationally unhealthy atmosphere created by this singular, lofty view of the senior executive as the Great Leader, the organization’s Champion. To meet the ordinary fiduciary duties of a senior executive can be bracing enough.

To add to this the extraordinary expectations of the organization and its board, vendors, partners, and customers, as well as the hype centered on these expectations by financial analysts and the press, can result in unbearable pressure. This strain can cause a number of problems for the individual executive ranging from inability to establish sound perspectives and bases for analysis to distorted decision-making, and even to detachment and paralyzed inaction.

To insist on doing this sort of thing in the face of the evidence that it is both largely, if not completely, inaccurate, and destructive to the person who is its object as well as to the organization, is, on the face of it, baffling. But there it is: we do it anyway.

Tomorrow we’ll take a quick look at another of the main reasons why this movement has run out of control. See you then!

Today’s tip: Speaking of persisting in perplexing behaviors in the face of the evidence that they aren’t warranted, please see this piece by Peter Galuszka, from BNET, about the influence of lawsuits on CEO pay.

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  1. Randi wrote:

    I enjoyed your article I am using it for a paper I am writing about the Great Man theory–The great wo”man” I am writing about is Coco Chanel.
    How should I cite your article in my paper?

    Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 4:55 am | Permalink
  2. Jim Stroup wrote:

    Hello Randi,

    Thanks for your kind remarks. Your school probably has its own citation guidelines, and they probably include methods for sources such as this, since they are so common these days, so I recommend you consult them.

    Thanks again!

    Sunday, December 7, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Great Man theories assume that the capacity for leadership is inherent – that great leaders are born, not made. These theories often portray great leaders as heroic, mythic and destined to rise to leadership when needed. The term “Great Man” was used because, at the time, leadership was thought of primarily as a male quality, especially in terms of military leadership.

    Friday, June 18, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  4. s.sandarasegaram wrote:

    great man theory is only for academic wont’ solve the problem of inadequate and inefficient leaders.we cant wait until great leaders are born.that is why we are having so many pg level programmes for leadership training.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  5. Addisu Legas wrote:

    I appreciate the great man theory based on the then understanding of human being, but today, greate man doesnot refer only to masculine gender, it also refers to whole human being, what i want to say is that, it is also the concern of female gender!!!

    Monday, October 24, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Great Leader Theory | Managing Leadership on Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    […] Yesterday, we offered one way of viewing the problems with the modern leadership movement’s argument that the fate of our organizations lies in the specially talented or trained persons of great individual leaders. An additional – and perhaps more damaging – problem is the most unfortunate elevation of that term beyond a generic reference to the boss to the gratuitously arrogant notion that leadership is separate from and superior to management. […]

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