Great Person vs Great Leader

It’s Election Day as I sit here writing this week’s post.  I imagine all of us have been turning over in our minds the concept of who we would consider a leader or what makes a leader lately.  It does not matter what job you hold—a teacher, a manager, a pilot—you name it, you always be under a leader.  For those reasons, I have decided to discuss a popular leadership theory and research into leadership development.

The “Great Man” Theory

A “great man/woman” theory is probably the most traditional theory of leadership.  Historians have been using this theory for years and famous leaders are characterized by two specific factors:

     1. A galvanizing experience (overcoming some potentially fatal illness)

     2. An admirable trait (persistence, optimism, intelligence, etc.) that is possessed to a certain degree

Individuals such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and others come to mind when examining the “great man/woman” theory.  We read about those individuals and think “If only I could be like so and so!”  It turns out that while these folks really are great leaders, there is a modest relationship at best between intelligence and leadership effectiveness (You are probably rethinking Churchill as your personal hero right now).  

If we examine biographies of famous leaders further, we find our heroes were in a specific set of circumstances that was combined with individual attributes of those leaders.  For instance, Harry Truman led the United States to victory in World War II (WWII).  However, looking back, he was actually thrust into the position of president after the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR).  Here we have a set of circumstances (FDR’s death and WWII) combined with the Truman’s past experiences and individual qualities that had shaped him as a person and a leader before he was prematurely thrust into the position as the leader of our country.

For some reason, our thinking is that someone has to go through some dramatic life story that explains how he or she became this great leader.  We actually see this commonly when leaders write their biographies that tell of their childhood and how they became who they are today.  While everyone loves good story, it does not touch on what is probably more important than a dramatic life experience:  leadership is developed, not made.

Developing Leadership

You may have heard the popular quote “A leader is born, not made”.  While there are individuals out there who are more prone to becoming good leaders, there is research that points towards developing leadership as opposed to developing leaders.

David Day, an Industrial-Organizational psychologist, made a distinction between the concept of “leader development” and “leadership development”.  A leader develops individual knowledge, skills, etc., while development of leadership focuses on developing the leader-follower relationship.  This includes an environment that a leader can build these relationships in that will enhance the cooperation of individuals and an exchange of resources.  To develop as a leader, you would focus on skills, knowledge and other individual attributes.  To develop your leadership, you would focus the interaction between leaders and followers.  Day describes this relationship between followers and leaders—a social exchange—as the essence of leadership. 

Day further argues that to develop leadership, the single most important “ability” that will create leadership opportunities is that of interpersonal competence.  Interpersonal competence is comprised of the social awareness and skills that tie back into his theory that the leader-follower relationship is a social exchange.  Day seeks not only develop leadership in the individual but also encourage a leader to create a group that that can work together to embrace changes in addition to creating and implementing them. 

While Day is not focused so much on the training and development of leaders (what we would most likely consider development), he uses training and development as a backdrop instead of the forefront.  However, Day does not completely rule out individual attributes and agrees they are important – without them, a leader would be unlikely or even unable to develop the leadership within a group.  Day simply argues that leadership should not stop at the individual – the development needs to take into consideration the ultimate success of the organization and how the group contributes to that as a whole.

When it comes down to it, someone using Day’s theory of leadership development would ask, “’How can I participate productively in the leadership process?’”.

Leadership Development in Progress

I realize that I have a variety of readers here, so I will not presume to say I have leadership development all figured out – in fact, I know I do not.  However, I am a firm believer in taking the opportunities presented to me, whether they were intentionally offered or not.  This might seem a little vague, but just recall group projects from classes past, a task from your boss, etc.  Whether consciously or not, there are many opportunities to develop your leadership, formally or informally.  The most important thing is that we continue to develop our leadership, instead of focusing on just our individual attributes.

As John C. Maxwell once wrote Everything rises and falls on leadership.



Landy, F. & Conte, J. (2016). Work in the 21st century (5th ed., pp. 154-157). Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.