The Great Man Approach Theory

In the nineteenth century, "The Great Man Approach"

In the nineteenth century, "The Great Man Approach" was a common philosophy. It was suggested that "great men" form the course of human history, and that particular historical figures were responsible for the majority of the world's events. This hypothesis was popularized by Thomas Carlyle, who thought that the world's historical backdrop is a biography of great men (Chand, 2016).

He believed that heroes shaped history through their personal qualities and inspirations that they had since birth. The hypothesis' central premise is that "leaders are born, not created." The method emphasizes the influence of great men like Napoleon and Shakespeare on historical events. The main advantage that this approach presents is helping people comprehend the traits that make great leaders. The great man theory discusses the influence that great men have in human history, and the fundamental explanation behind this influence is their personal traits such as trust, competence, charisma, passion, and wisdom. The great men in every society have high energy levels, are intelligent, and have morals. This theory applies to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other "great men" who were born with these personal traits. The theory also shows the possibility that one individual can change the world and anyone can be born a leader.

Herbert Spencer's critique

Despite these advantages, Herbert Spencer presented an unequivocal counter-contention. He stated that "Those who regard the histories of societies as the records of their great men, and think that these great men shape the fates of their societies, overlook the truth that such great men are the products of their societies" (Carneiro, 2007).

Basically, Spencer points out that these "great men" would not exist without the social conditions constructed before their time. For instance, if Martin Luther King lived in another era, outside the time he grew up, then his life would take an alternate path, not necessarily one of "greatness." The approach thus fails to examine the context of these great men and simply accepts their greatness as natural. The approach also lacks any scientific validity, claims that one cannot be a leader unless they are born as one, and is gender biased.

Criticism of the Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory was a common nineteenth-century idea proposing that history can be to a great extent be explained as the influence of "great men." These people changed history through their individual traits and the theory thus helped define the qualities required to be a leader, as well as giving hope that anyone can change the world. The critics of this approach believe that it disregards the context of these great men, is gender biased, and that anyone can learn how to be a leader.


Carneiro, R. L. (2007). The Muse of History and the Science of Culture. New York: Springer Science & Business Media.
Chand, S. (2016). Great Man Theory and Trait Theory of Leadership. Retrieved from Your Article Library:

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