The Great Man Theory of Entrepreneurship

One of the most popular 19th century theories of entrepreneurship is the "great man theory". The theory's popularity is probably owing to the historian Thomas Carlyle. Yes, I know, it sounds sexist from the start, but let us stretch the meaning and say it's the great people theory, and try to move it along from there.

Great people theories are often heard in historical tales of WW2, with Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and a few others leading the way. In reality, tens of millions of people were involved in the war and a myriad of events occurred over time that may have impacted the outcomes of the war. The same is done with entrepreneurs, pitting Bill Gates against Steve Jobs in the battle for the PC, for instance.

The great people theory holds that most of the important decisions about how the economic and political world works today were made by just a handful of people. These gifted individuals are the heroes and heroines of every age.

Another popular assumption among great people theories is that great people are born, not made. They are born with a special gift or power that allows them to ascend above others and assume positions of influence and power. This assumption is quite problematic too, because it basically means that most of us just need to accept our low lots in life. There is an elitism built into the theory, that a few should be great and others not great and thus not impactful in the world. If greatness cannot be learned, then why try hard? Perhaps that's the point of such a myth--to keep us from trying.

Finally, another critique is that entrepreneurship is not really about individuals, rather it is about groups of individuals who form a network together in the pursuit of common goals (Drakopoulou and Anderson, 2007). Thus, over-emphasizing individuals downplays the importance of networks.

Of course, all of this ignores one simple fact, which is that most entrepreneurs use ideas that they learned from previous employment experiences. Most innovations in developed economies come from investments in research by governments and corporations. Some of the incremental innovations are used internally, but most of the radical ones and disruptive ones are shelved, or spill out of incumbent firms in the form of spinout entrepreneurship by former employees.

A private sector employee leaving and competing with its parent firm is hardly the media portrait of the heroic entrepreneur today. These folks are often painted as if they hail from an ill ilk based on arguments about loyalty. They face lawsuits based on non-compete, non-solicitation, non-disclosure, and fiduciary duties. Yet, for most potential entrepreneurs, using ideas developed while working for a previous employer is the normal things, and creating a major innovation from the garage is the exception promoted as the rule. Making entrepreneurship seem like a difficult thing, that few people can achieve, is part of the conditioning. So is over-attributing innovations to entrepreneurs of note, as if Elon invented the electric car.


Thomas Carlyle, 1840. On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History. London: Chapman and Hall, 193 Piccadilly

Drakopoulou Dodd, S., and Anderson, A. R. (2007). Mumpsimus and the mything of the individualistic entrepreneur. International Small Business Journal, 25(4), 341-360.

Order now!