Are Leaders Made or Born: a Critique of Great Manand Trait Theories

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A critique of Great Man and Trait theories.

Assignment prepared by Philip Barry 387169
August 08


Leadership continues to be one of the most debated and studied topics in management and indeed society as a whole. This can be evidenced by the fact that if you search for leadership on Goggle 175,000,000 worldwide hits are recorded. Success in many arenas, whether it be business, the military, politics or the wider community is often primarily attributed to good leadership. Equally, organisational failure or under-performance is just as readily attributed to poor leadership.

Leadership has been the subject of intense interest and debate for over two and a half millennia, from Plato and Aristotle through to present leaders in the field. Despite such a prolonged period of study there however, remains no consensus on an accepted definition of what leadership is, little consensus on what makes for good leadership, as well as limited consensus to what extent leadership can be truly learned and if so how to best develop it. As such it is easy to understand why it was Burns concluded that, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on the earth.”

Among the many debates still raging after 2500 years is the question “Are leaders born or made”; this assignment intends to further contribute to that debate through offering a critical analysis of “Great Man” and Trait theories of leadership. The assignment will consider the strengths, weaknesses of the theories, as well as the potential dangers that may result for organisations that too readily accept “Great Man” and Trait theories may result. Finally the assignment will briefly consider the implications of the debate to leadership selection.

Leaders are born a Critique

The statements that “he is a born leader” or “she is a natural leader” are statements that many of us will hear over our lifetime of work. The statements from a theoretical perspective are closely associated with two schools of thought on Leadership i.e. the “Classical Great Man" school and the trait school. For the majority of time that leadership has been studied these two schools have dominated thought on the subject.

The basis of the contentions of both schools of thought are that certain individuals have innate traits and characteristics that make them leaders and that these characteristics set them apart form other non leaders. Moreover historically many advocates of “Great Man” and Trait theories have argued that you either have these characteristics or you do not and that largely the characteristics that determine if you are a leader can not be taught. More recent proponents however do accept that if you have the ”right Stuff” it can be built upon.

The theories have their philosophical roots with the likes of Plato, who in the Republic developed the concept of the “Golds” who are destined to lead and the bronzes who by right of birth are to be led. Similar ideas were presented by Aristotle in Book 1 of his discourse on “Politics” where he suggests that the rank of a person is through the superior power of implied virtue of knowledge, talent, ability, competence and belief. Such attributes and virtues he wrote, were by nature and circumstances of birth, and not accessible to the masses. From birth he believed one is intended to rule or for subjection .

Historically, “Great Man” and trait theorists have pointed us to look at the likes of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln, Ghandi and Churchill as individuals who history has demonstrated are “clearly” superior and embody great leadership. Academically study has therefore looked to determine the specific traits and characteristics that such great men have, in order that we can better identify future great leaders .

The Trait theory of leadership has a number of appeals; intuitively it fits the notion that leaders are the individuals who...
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