I always enjoy reading about how leadership concepts have adapted over the years, so I was fascinated to look into a 19th century concept of leadership called the ‘Great Man Leadership Theory’.
If you don’t know about it, ‘The Great Man Theory’ extolled that leadership is a characteristic some people are just born with, but when I delved more deeply into the concept’s originators and champions, the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, I then discovered that he believed that "great men should rule and that others should revere them”. For me, that was hardly an innovative or ground-breaking way of thinking, especially given that he was a ‘philosopher.’ It also seems rather ironic given that one of the most powerful monarchs in the world at the time was a woman, Queen Victoria!
But if we look at his notions and feelings in the context of the time in which he lived, ‘great men’ were almost always from the aristocracy, as few from lower classes ever had the chance to lead. Given this, I wonder whether his theory may have also added towards an already pre-existing social belief that leadership had something to do with breeding and gender and that was male. Queen Victoria may have ticked the ‘aristocratic’ box he mentioned for “leaders”, but where does he sit on the fact that she was a female leader, in power? How exactly does he align her gender with his philosophy about her being “aristocratic”?
“Poor Little Queen”
Victoria was 18 at her accession, and was described by Carlyle on her Coronation as “Poor little Queen! She is at an age when a girl can hardly be trusted to choose a bonnet for herself, yet a task is laid on her from which an archangel might shrink”.
If we then fast-forward to news I spotted this week – 170 years on from when Carlyle peddled his theory and commented on the young Queen – about a study conducted by researchers from The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, which has revealed that whilst companies with 30 percent female executives rake in as much as six percentage points more in profits, having female CEOs or board members did not have a statistically-significant impact on the bottom line. The study also showed how not all firms are created equal when it comes to fostering women’s leadership potential, with some more likely to encourage female managers depending on characteristics ranging from company size, to national policies such as family-leave.
Now I know gender issues were not on the table when the 'Great Man' theory was proposed – most leaders then and long before, were male and the thought of a ‘Great Woman’ lay in areas other than leadership – so questions about the theory’s androcentric bias were a long way from being raised. But thankfully they are being asked and answered now!
Concepts of Leadership and Leaders Are Being Redefined As Digital Media Makes for Greater Collaboration
This is best exampled by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s project for the UN’s first high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment. I hope that high profile, international projects like this, and many others besides, will be able to totally readdress and redefine the thinking behind leadership concepts like the ‘Great Man Leadership Theory’ by showing they are precisely just that – ‘a theory’ – and by no means a scientifically-proven method or ‘fact’ to follow now, in the 21st century. Remember, it wasn’t really until the 1920’s and 1930’s that there was any academic interest in the area of leadership so it is still something relatively “new” or should I say, “evolving”. As a result, some businesses still remain caught in a sort of organisational “limbo”, making steps toward the more contemporary structures while still hanging on to the familiar hierarchies and methods.
However, I think digital media is set to have a far greater impact on the way in which we communicate and on how companies organise their people in the coming years, as it creates a level platform on which people can collaborate and share information. The Internet relishes participation, collaboration and engagement; leaders who can hone into this are likely to have more success than those who simply assign tasks to their staff, in my opinion. Rather than being “in charge,” the collaborative leaders of tomorrow will be able to blur the lines between “boss” and “worker” and focus on team building, creative thinking, and participation from their people. There are no “aristocratic leaders” on digital media, thankfully.