Historian Thomas Carlyle once said: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This quote sums up the 19th century ‘Great Man’ theory. It described the men and heroes of the day – figures of authority who utilised their power born from their personal traits of wisdom, intelligence and confidence.
Another great quote derived from this theory was that “great leaders are born, not made”. This was only spurred on by famous leaders such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Abraham Lincoln, who all somewhat magically appeared to take control of the situation.
Some of the earliest research into the matter brought to light the fact that successful leaders of the time often ended up being aristocratic rulers, who had been born into their positions.
But psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw argues that while naturally this theory is out of date, is there some truth to it? Are great leaders naturally skilled or can great leadership be learned?
In great contrast to the ‘Great Man’ theory, Albert Bandura’s social learning theory states that behaviour can be learnt through the observation of others. Shaw explains that this rings true when linked with Bandura’s famous 1961 bobo doll experiment.
Those who value and look up to respected leaders can have the tendency to replicate their behaviour and use them as their model.
Another way to find out whether leadership is an inherent trait is through the Social Contagion founded by Gustave Le Bon, who looks at how our behaviour can help shape the outlook, values, emotions and behaviours of others.
Reflecting on the Contagion, Shaw said: “This type of theory applied by leaders would work wonders to enable key qualities in their co-workers such as hard work, having a positive attitude and approach to business matters, to think creatively and intuitively and to motivate the team in believing that they are capable of reaching great heights.
“Ideas such as these are in keeping with John Adair’s theory of action-centred leadership. A simple, effective model that encompasses three elements that a successful leader can juggle at the same time: clear focus on achieving goals with a team working together but with each individual proactive and involved.”
Again these are learnable skills.
But let’s face it, the ‘Great Man’ theory may be partially true. Natural born leaders do tend to exude that ‘extra something’ that instantly sets them apart from the crowd. This could all come down to confidence, strong self-belief, incredible social skills or that likeability factor, but whatever it is, those traits play a key role in attracting the attentions of colleagues and clients alike.
“To have this kind of powerful charm is certainly a gift, but there is great value to a business in having a solid leader who possesses detailed knowledge, experience and commitment,” Shaw said. “It would therefore be unjust to presume that good leaders cannot be made through teaching and guidance.
“Good leaders are able to cope with challenges, can self reflect, are ‘people’ orientated, are able to make decisions and can accept constructive criticism to enable personal growth. Good leaders give each team member a voice to share ideas and play a part in the decision-making process so employees are made to feel invested and valued.
“Leaders who deprive the involvement from their colleagues are often left feeling unwanted, detached and worthless. As a result, the cortisol stress levels and adrenaline gradually intensifies leading to physical and mental illness, which in turn can be very damaging to the individual as well as the business.”
OK, whether leaders are born or created is debatable. And essentially, the answer is probably both.
“Ultimately great leadership comes with many years of learning and experience whereby new opportunities are discovered, adversities are surmounted and successful teams are built,” Shaw added. “A touch of wow factor also helps.”
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