De-mystifying the 'great man' theory

Many people tend to believe, or at least accept, the "Great Man Theory." Great men are reported to have done great things! It doesn't sound that bad, but do we need to modify that legendary title now to the "Great Person Theory."...

Many people tend to believe, or at least accept, the "Great Man Theory." Great men are reported to have done great things! It doesn't sound that bad, but do we need to modify that legendary title now to the "Great Person Theory."

Men still lead the personification parade in numbers, but those days are definitely numbered. Women are coming on fast.

My intention is to point out that the "Great Man Theory" was always a bit suspect. Early on, John Adams one of our nation's forefathers saw it differently saying, "Events, not man, were in the saddle." His good friend and fellow revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, wrote it more forcefully, "I shall continue to believe that great men are a lie and that there is little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in the world which calls 'great men' and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurors (Magic)."

Is there really any truth in the "great man theory" Any evidence? Although people today would attribute circumstances to have played a significant role, we still tend to revere the personalities. Why? We seem to need to be able to give some one individual the major credit. Maybe because it is much easier to remember and use a name rather than cite a litany of contributing factors.

And it seems that we do need heroes. It adds luster to our country's history and us too. Is there any danger, any negatives in this practice? I believe there is. As we revere our heroes, we tend to increase the reward spread among people involved. What is the most important reward for Americans today? Money; financial reward. And so, we continue to increase the spread between the haves and the have nots.


One theory, in this increasing spread, is that the haves have truly earned their greater quantities of money. It has been assumed that they have laboriously gathered the additional knowledge and/or have made the additional effort. On the other end of that continuum, we -- too often -- assume that many of those individuals at the low end of the income scale have not exerted sufficient effort. Consequently, wealth and income in the United States has become more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

There is increasing evidence today that the haves do not have a corner on the knowledge and effort scale of our national successes. Knowledge is readily available in modern times to almost everyone in our society. As money can be inherited without individual effort, education and knowledge is readily available now. A half century ago, in 1957, the future Nobel Prize winning economist Robert calculated that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the 20th Century (1909 to 1949) could only be attributed to "technical change in the broadest sense." The supply of labor and capital, what workers and employers contribute, seemed almost inconsequential in comparison to this massive technological "residual." American Warren Buffet, multi-billionaire, says it more directly. "Society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned."

Warren Buffet recognizes and supports a fairer financial reward divide for the common folk. Hopefully, in our democracy, we will begin to treat all contributing members of society more equally. In some countries, corporations have limits and pay their top executives no more that 30 times the individuals who work at the lower end of the organizational chart. In the United States we now have some individuals making hundreds of times the income of those on the lower end. The work on both ends is important. This spread seems ridiculously unjustifiable and humanely insulting to those on the bottom in a democratic society where a majority of its members claim moral and religious values.

Any humor in this most serious subject? You decide:

1) In former days, ability is what men needed to get to the top rung of the economic ladder if the boss didn't have a daughter.

2) Executive ability is a talent for making decisions quickly and assigning subordinates to do the work.

3) Executive talent is the art or practice of receiving the credit for the hard work of your subordinates.

4) My favorite quip about great men: " Behind every great man is a wife rolling her eyes."

What To Read Next