“The Hero in History”*

One of the longest standing of the many debates among experts on leadership is the so-called “hero in history” debate. The debate about the importance of single individuals. About how much of a difference any single leader can make.

At one end of the spectrum has been the British philosopher and historian, Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1841 that history is “at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones.” At the other end was another nineteenth century Brit, this one the sociologist Herbert Spencer, who thought that what Carlyle wrote was poppycock. Who thought that if you look more closely at history, you will see that Carlyle’s theory about the great man “breaks down completely.”

Leo Tolstoy was another skeptic – he did not believe that even the greatest of men made history. “The actions of Napoleon and Alexander,” he wrote in War and Peace, “were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier…. We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events.”   

More contemporaneous was the American philosopher Sidney Hook, who in his 1943 book, The Hero in History, distinguished between “the eventful man” and “the event-making man.” The eventful man is the person, the leader, who is simply in the right place at the right time. The event-making man, in contrast, is the “Great Man.” The leader who is not merely, as Spencer and Tolstoy would have it, history’s pawn, but history’s piper. The event-making man is a mover and a shaker. He is a genuine leader who controls not only his own destiny but the destinies of others. Of his followers, maybe millions, caught voluntarily, or involuntarily, in his vortex.

Donald Trump is an event-making man. This is not to say that he is not also a product of the times in which we live. A reflection of the history that preceded him – and a reflection of his base. Of the 74 million Americans who voted for him in November, many of whom would follow even now, no matter where he led.

But, for the last four years Trump has sucked the air out of the room. He has consumed us, shaped the American experience and experiment. Moreover, he continues to so even now, notwithstanding he has been beaten and bloodied, with just a week left in office, if that.  Who then can counter Carlyle or for that matter Hook? Who can doubt that on rare occasion there is such a thing as a “great man”? An “event-making man”? Not me. 


 *The Hero in History debate has presumed the leader a man. For the purposes of this essay, I use this convention.

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