On Wednesday, I leave for the International Leadership Association annual meeting in Amsterdam. This week end I began working on slides for the presentation of some experimental work on leadership. The research is joint with Dan Houser, David Levy, Kail Padgitt, and Erte Xiao and the experiments are being conducted at George Mason University. I soon mentioned Thomas Carlyle, the famous proponent of a "great man" theory of leadership. David Levy and I have examined Carlyle's sustained opposition to Classical economics and economists in Vanity. We think it is not uncoincidental that Carlyle opposed Classical economics and propounded a "great man" theory of leadership!
Lo and behold! In an article published in today's US News, David Gergen both asks the question that is central to our research and also mentions Carlyle:
Do leaders really matter? That question has prompted debate for centuries. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously represented one side of the argument. "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," he wrote. Leo Tolstoy spoke for the other side. Great men, the novelist wrote, "are but the labels that serve to give a name to an end and, like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event."
Our take is that leadership matters -- leaders help non-leaders coordinate activities -- leadership is largely a matter of institutions as opposed to "great men," and leadership is carried in language.
Look for the experimental results here once we've got some feedback from our Leadership colleagues!