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 like 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 like charisma, intelligence, political skills and wisdom are some of the natural qualities of a successful leader.

Therefore, the theory centers on two main assumptions:

  • Every great leader is born with traits that prepare them to rise and lead

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. 

  • People become great leaders when there’s a need

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 based on 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 based on 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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