The Great Man Theory was born in Scotland, the child of philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795 –1881) – “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. It was counter-argued by English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and a few other things, Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) – ‘Great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes’.
This dichotomy has lived ever since. Indeed, it is as old as humankind. But the anti-great-man theory has gained progressive ground in leadership. Not won the battle completely, but certainly more politically correct. It’s not about him or her – the approach says – but about the team, the conditions, the collective.
Charismatic leadership for example has its adepts, but it’s more politically correct to say that we don’t really need these charismatic leaders, after all, there are plenty of examples of uncharismatic ones doing very well, thank you, and increasing earnings per share, what else do you want?
But in the same pages where prominent and righteous management thinkers debunk the Great Man theory of leadership, we read about Jobs and Bezos and Gates and Page and… It seems contradictory. And if, indeed, if there is a Great Man or Women at the centre of success or failure, where do they come from? Do they land from the sky? Rise from the catacombs? Are they the sort of nomadic leaders that jump from corporate to corporate until the level of stock options is greater than the appetite to lead? Or, should we look at garages, at lofts, at rented hubs for people with laptops romanced by venture capitalists?
Pick a model, I’ll give you the data to support it. The naked truth is that, as far as management affairs, not much correlates with not much, ‘and that those lists of ‘research’ with the 10 characteristics of outstanding leaders have the solidity and strength of a cream cake.
Whether you like it or not, we are stuck with the Great Man/Woman approach no matter how much we adapt the concept to allow for a Spencer-like ‘product of their societies’, which, in today’s context, it’s only stating the obvious.
I don’t have a big problem with this, on the contrary, I think that some anti-hero fighting is a waste for management thinkers who have not much else to fight for. That does not mean that we should depend on their magical appearance, or luck, or negate the need for some sort of leadership development. But we would do a greater service to ourselves if we were to acknowledge that, when it comes to management and leadership, we are in massive Trial and Error territory. I prefer the uncomfortably humble view that we don’t know much about it, coupled by a determined ‘ok, let’s try and make it happen’, more than either the blind acceptance of the sure 7 habits, or 10, or 20, or the unconscious cloning of Saint Jobs.