Leaders in History
Do Great Leaders Make History, or Does History Make Great Leaders?
Reconsider history’s “great leaders” in light of this debate.
Some people argue that history can largely be explained by the impact of great leaders—a relatively small set of historical figures whose highly influential actions and decisions shaped the course of the world. In other words, great leaders make history.
However, others argue that great leaders are little more than the products of their specific societies and times—factors that are outside their control. In this view, great leaders only appear when the social conditions are ripe for an influential person to arise. In other words, the course of history itself is what determines whether or not a great leader appears.
So which view do you support: Do great leaders make history, or does history make great leaders? Follow the exercises below to consider a few case studies from history and come to your own conclusion.
Vishakha Sonawane, “Harry Truman Birthday: Quotes to Celebrate 33rd President’s Birthday,” International Business Times, 8 May 2017, https://www.ibtimes.com/harry-truman-birthday-quotes-celebrate-33rd-presidents-birthday-2535963 [31 July 2020].
Read the quote below by U.S. President Harry Truman.
Do you agree with this quote? Or disagree? Why?
Give at least one example from history to support your position.
President Harry S. Truman, 1949.
“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”¹
-President Harry Truman
President John F. Kennedy, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.
Portrait of Harriet Tubman.
Interview with Cesar Chavez, 1979.
Why were these leaders great?
What did they accomplish?
What were the historical circumstances around their leadership?
Name some “great leaders” in history
Reconsider these leaders through the lens of the debate
Did these leaders make history, or did history make them?
Pull from your own historical knowledge to try to discuss each case.