I casually participate in some online leadership forums. Lately I’ve noticed a bit of a fixation on “great leaders.” Not Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Churchill or other historic greats, but people possessing innate qualities that apparently make them the best, most successful leaders around. 

We’ve all seen the lists – great leaders are this, and this, and this. Great leaders do this and that. Lately I’ve been resisting all this talk of leadership greatness for a number of reasons. 

First of all, the so-called Great Man theory is where the study of leadership began, in the mid-19th century. By late in that century, people who studied leaders and leadership had abandoned Great Man theory in favor of its offspring, Trait theory. 

By the mid-20th century, leadership scholars had largely moved on from both theories but trait theory remains stubbornly appealing to people. 

What proved to be great leadership in one place or at one time may not work at all in another. All this great leader talk is problematic for a much more important reason. A great leader frame of reference perpetuates the mistaken idea that leadership is all about the leader; it keeps alive outdated but still surprisingly common leader-centric approaches. Granted, a model of leadership favoring dominant leaders may still make sense in certain contexts, and fire services still really like our chiefs on golden thrones. 

However, the research is pretty clear. Adaptive, people-centered, participative, and distributed leadership is where the work world is headed and what large swaths of the workforce want, need, and expect. A leader-centric paradigm can lead to everything from selfish leadership styles, to micro-management, to destructive dark leadership; the province of self-centered, impulsive, exploitative, and toxic people in positions of authority. 

Unfortunately, dark leadership is more common and more tolerated than we might care to admit. I recently re-read a 2018 Harvard Business Review article citing research that found employees end up, on average, working two years longer for toxic bosses than nontoxic bosses. Fortunately, the author offered some resonant psychological explanations for a finding that many would find counter intuitive. 

Another reason I find myself chafing at the bounty of “great leader” resources is that often, they are laundry lists combining personality traits, habits and practices that, while desirable, may or may not have a meaningful connection to the practice of leadership. Sometimes, the great-leader resources are little more than fine-sounding platitudes – the leadership equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. The popular press around leadership has always suffered from a tendency to offer up these kinds of sugary snacks. Years ago, while studying leadership in graduate school, I vowed to engage only evidence-based leadership thinking both in my personal leadership practice and in what I endeavored to teach others. 

Ironically, sometimes the listed habits and practices are not those of “great leaders” but should be the practice of any leader who wants to be effective. Yes, the great ones probably do those things, but so should you and I, and so should any aspiring leader. 

Making greatness the benchmark can make leading and leadership seem like unattainable magic. My research showed a strong relationship between a person’s level of confidence in his or her own ability to develop and  motivation to learn leadership knowledge, skills and abilities and transfer those KSAs to the workplace. 

We don’t want emerging leaders thinking “Well, to be a leader I have to be great, I should be trying to be great, but if I can’t be great, perhaps I should not try to lead at all.” 

I look at some of these lists of characteristics of great leaders and think “It would be tough for a young leader to find themselves here because they’ve not yet had an opportunity to do these things.” 

I can’t help but think about what message that sends and how that message effects someone’s perception of their own potential, or the potential of their peers, to be a leader. I don’t like it.

So, what am I getting at? It’s a turbulent world. There are lots of problems to solve from incredible workforce issues to – as IAWF recently highlighted at Fire & Climate 2022 in Pasadena and Melbourne – the influence that radical climate disruption is having not only on our fire problems, but on the realistic range of solutions to those problems. 

My advice to leaders working in these times? Don’t try to be a great leader; try to be an effective leader. Don’t focus on your greatness, but on the greatness of the results produced by people who you will serve with trust, vision, inspiration, compassion, and communication. Provide stability and hope. Help people produce results. Be the best leader you can be. 

Do these things and there’s a good chance that one day someone whose confidence you’ve inspired may say “You know something? You’re a great leader.” 



Michael DeGrosky is a student of leadership, lifelong learner, mentor and coach, sometimes writer, and recovering fire chief. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.