Great Man Theory versus Transformational Leadership Theory

The definition of leadership in organizational psychology has evolved over the years partly because of ongoing research and increasing complexity of operations in the modern business environment. Through time, a constantly changing business setting has compelled organizations to adopt more progressive leadership philosophies in order to keep up with competition and remain relevant to respective industries. This essay contrasts the simplicity of the Great Man Theory with the complexity of the contemporary transformational leadership theory. The Great man theory is unidimensional in that it focuses on mere traits of the leader while the transformational theory is multifaceted as it looks at multiple factors in leadership.

The great man theory emphasizes the natural attributes of highly influential and unique individuals who have made a positive impact on history. Attributed to Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlie, the theory maintains that heroes have shaped history through divine inspiration and personal attributes such as courage and superior intellect. Carlie publicized this philosophy in his book “Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History” where he pointed at the characteristic patterns emanating from the decisions, ideas, works, and even personal traits of heroes. He gave a comprehensive analysis of six major types of roles served by heroes: Divinity, poet, priest, a man of letters, and king. Carlie also asserted that research relating to heroes could be beneficial to one’s heroic aspect.

The Great Man theory of leadership emerged in the 19th century because of the wide recognition of heroic acts of the era (Spector, 2016). Examples of heroic characters at the time included Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander the Great. Such personalities helped shape the notion that leaders are born rather than made. Proponents of the great man theory believed that the “right man for the job” seemed to emerge magically from the public to address existing problems and lead a group of people into success or safety. In fact, some of the earliest researchers in the realm of leadership explored successful leaders such as aristocratic rulers who achieved leadership positions by birthright. People of lesser social status had no chance of becoming leaders. Hence, the public espoused the notion that leadership was an inherent ability. The Great Man theory retains its relevance and influence in various population segments where people believe that prominent leaders possess the right personality and qualities for a certain leadership position.

On the other hand, transformational leadership theory is an approach to leadership that aims at causing a change in individuals and the organization (Bass & Riggio, 2006). Ideally, it creates positive and valuable change in followers with the ultimate goal of transforming them into leaders. The inner workings of the theory involve the enhancement of morale, motivation, and performance. Various mechanisms through which leaders apply transformational theory include connecting the identity of self to the collective identity of the organization; challenging followers to take responsibility in their roles; playing the position of the role model to inspire followers; appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of employees; and aligning followers with tasks in which they are proficient.

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The concept of transformational leadership emerged in the 1970s when James Macgregor conducted descriptive research on political leaders. The initial idea was to highlight the role of leaders in supporting followers and vice versa in the advancement of morale and motivation. Burns’ research was partly inspired by the difficulty in differentiating between leadership and management. The author pointed out various behaviors and characteristics and coined the term “transforming leadership” to explain how a leader transforms the life of the workforce and organization. The leader’s personality and ability to elicit a change by example, articulate the company’s mission, and challenge goals are at the heart of transformational philosophy.

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The simplicity of the Great Man theory and the complexity of transformational leadership are evident. The more traditional Great man model did not look into the underlying psychological explanations behind the success of various leaders. Instead, it explored the outward traits portrayed by successful people. This tendency led to heavy reliance on heroic traits rather than fundamental rationalizations. Conversely, transformational theory takes basic accounts and a deeper approach to leadership by examining core psychological links between behaviors and performance (Hermosilla, Amutio, Da Costa, & Páez, 2016). In particular, research points at four essential elements of transformational leadership namely individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. The latter is a central factor in the earlier Great man theory. In essence, idealized influence means that a leader is a role model of high ethical behavior. Leaders instill pride and gains trust and respect.

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Apparently, the Great man theory is unidimensional in that it focuses on mere traits of the leader while the transformational theory is multifaceted as it looks at multiple factors in leadership. In the former, followers are expected to emulate the traits of successful leaders – heroes. However, they cannot qualify to be leaders unless they are inherently born as leaders. The theory has been deeply contested by researchers for its unidimensional nature. In contrast, transformational leadership draws attention to the mechanisms through which certain leadership traits elicit positive change in organizations. The application of these mechanisms is not limited to various persons. Rather, they can be applied by any person who wishes to exercise leadership.

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