Philosophers and social scientists have debated the role of leaders for centuries. Plato, writing his Republic in the fourth century B.C., argued that the ideal city would have an elaborate system to choose its leaders that made any individual leader replaceable. Thucydides, writing just a bit earlier than Plato, took a very different position by describing how individual Athenian leaders, particularly Pericles, played a crucial factor in the course of the Peloponnesian War, as their varying skills and preferences led directly to Athenian victories and defeats.
Many, many have followed the Greeks’ lead, but two nineteenth century thinkers have become more contemporary champions for each viewpoint. Karl Marx argued for the unimportance of individual leaders, proclaiming, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past.” Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish writer who named economics “the dismal science,” famously declared for the other side: “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.” Our instincts might lead us to side with Carlyle (and Thucydides), to think that leaders matter. Certainly, many leaders (especially the successful ones) make this claim—just have a look at the business section of your local bookstore. But social scientists who systematically study leadership generally agree with Marx. From psychology to political science to management to economics, researchers who study leadership argue or assume that individual leaders are surprisingly unimportant.
Strikingly, social scientists in every field have identified different versions of the same three forces that, together, minimize the impact of individual leaders. Although these three forces have only sometimes been explicitly identified, they underpin every social science theory that argues or assumes the dispensability of individual leaders. The combination of all three forces usually means that individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead. The forces are: