The Great Man Theory: Is Barack Obama proof that leaders are made not born?

Omar Ali
Barack Obama

On Wednesday 3rd May, Barack Obama spoke in Berlin at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. In a relaxed and jovial manner, he conversed about the overall global scenario, imparting a message of optimism, particularly for the youth about issues such as climate change. "What inspires me is the upcoming generation. As I travel around the globe, I discover that this group of young individuals is clever, visionary and inventive, however, they occasionally experience a weight that can be discouraging," stated the former President of the United States on Wednesday evening (Stern, 2023). During his visit, Obama also dined with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband and lunched with current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Chancellor later thanked Obama on Instagram for his support and his ongoing dedication to democracy, tolerance, and reason after leaving office. Obama has constructed a new life for himself since his presidency ended six years ago, with hefty book contracts and lecture events.

With Obama’s visit to Berlin, it has us asking what causes individuals to still yearn for Obama and why does the globe continue to heed his stance on most global affairs? What leadership attributes does Obama possess? And ultimately, are leaders such as Obama innate or made? A persistent argument in the realm of leadership is the question of whether leaders are born or developed. The Great Man Theory is one of the earliest and most persistent ideas of leadership, arguing that certain people are born with intrinsic attributes that make them natural leaders (Lindberg, 2022). This theory gained popularity in the 19th century but has since been criticized for oversimplifying the complex nature of leadership and neglecting to account for the effect of external circumstances on an individual's performance as a leader (Khan, 2016). Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, is a perfect example of a leader who was shaped rather than born, with a leadership style that reflects his upbringing, education, and life experiences.

Obama's Upbringing and Early Life

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, to an American mother and a Kenyan father. Following his parents' divorce, he relocated to Indonesia with his mother when he was six years old. Obama's awareness started to develop as a young boy living among different cultures and faiths. His upbringing in a diverse environment gave him a different perspective on life. People of all races and religious beliefs- Muslims, Christians, and atheists—are treated equally and are all simply human beings. When he was 11 years old, his mother sent him to reside with his father in Hawaii. Obama was cognizant of racism from a very young age because he was one of only three African American pupils in his school (Elkatawneh, 2016). Obama's multicultural upbringing and exposure to many cultures and religions shaped his perspective on equality and human rights, which he took with him throughout his studies and career path (Maraniss, 2012).


Obama’s Education and Career Path

Obama started his college experience at Occidental College in Los Angeles, but he moved after only two years to Columbia University in New York City. During his two years at Columbia, Obama led a spiritual lifestyle, immersing himself in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Toni Morrison, Herman Melville, and the Bible. This was a period of intellectual development for Obama. In 1983, he graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Arts in political science. He started "toying with the notion of becoming a community organizer who would help strengthen the impoverished (Remnick, 2011). In Harlem, he began volunteering and searching for a full-time position in community organizing. He had been unsuccessful until one day he got a call from Jerry Kellman, a Chicago-based community activist, who was searching for staff for a social project in a low-income black area of Chicago's South (Clayton, 2010). Obama's community organizing in Chicago was formative as it influenced his political perspective and commitment to social justice. Working with low-income and disadvantaged communities in Chicago gave him a thorough grasp of the systemic inequities that these communities experience and the value of grassroots organization and community mobilization in accomplishing change. These encounters influenced Obama's decision to pursue a career in civil rights law, where he worked for social justice and advocated for underrepresented populations. His work as a community organizer motivated his future legal and political careers and his approach to leadership (Remnick, 2011).

Following his experience as a community mobilizer and advocate for civil rights, Obama moved into the political arena when being elected to the Illinois state assembly in 1996. He held this position from 1996 to 2004, advocating for bills that sought to enhance early childhood education and create a state refund for earned income tax. In his campaign for U.S. Senate, he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, which "pushed Obama into the limelight " and on November 2, 2004, he was elected to the United States Senate with 70% of the vote. On January 5, 2005, Barack Obama was chosen as the third African American to the United States Senate in American history. Barack Obama's pledges of change attracted a record number of white and black voters, leading to his victories in Democratic primaries. These victories ultimately lead him in 2008 to become the first African American President of the United States (Hanson, 2014). The global focus that Obama commanded via his leadership and vision inspired the Nobel committee to award him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and people-to-people cooperation (Mohammed, 2018). Obama's leadership has been profoundly impacted by his education and experience, which appeal to the American public and contributed to his political success (Maraniss, 2012).


Obama's Leadership Style

Obama's leadership style reflects his distinct blend of vision, pragmatism, and empathy. He is noted for his eloquence and charisma, which he uses to inspire and encourage others, as well as his ability to work across political lines and seek agreement. He has a magnetic personality, is an engaging speaker and an attentive observer who values constructive critique and life lessons. He has a stylish appearance that can also dazzle others. He is well-liked because of his practicality, adaptability, modesty, and his outreach to the public. Obama's emphasis on openness, ethics, and accountability has also elevated him to the status of a role model for true leadership (Koehn, 2017).

Obama is a highly disciplined thinker who is clever, efficient, and calm under duress. He also makes decisions in a systematic and controlled manner. Obama's methodical decision-making was exemplified in his handling of the issue of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The former president assessed intelligence reports and military alternatives, sought counsel from his national security advisors, and directly supervised the mission from the Situation Room in the White House. This systematic approach played a crucial role in this issue and mitigated potential dangers to American personnel (Bush, 2010). But this decision made by Obama to carry out a targeted military mission to either capture or eliminate Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 received also negative feedback. Critics contended that the operation was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, and that the president did not adhere to the proper procedures for obtaining approval from Congress. However, those who supported Obama's leadership style viewed it as a daring and conclusive action that demonstrated his dedication to national security and his willingness to take personal responsibility for difficult choices. Obama himself recognized the dangers involved and accepted complete accountability for the operation, emphasizing his leadership style that prioritized resolution and responsibility. Despite the controversy surrounding the operation, it remains a defining moment of Obama's presidency and a testament to his leadership in the face of intricate and challenging circumstances (Bowden, 2013).

Obama's leadership traits are present in his words and in his work as a lawyer, senator and president. Barak Obama is now synonymous with the image of America due to the impact he has while president and his achievements (Setyowati, 2014). His career trajectory and approach to leadership is an example of how the Great Man Theory is not accurate. But, what leadership theory better applies to the case of Obama? Authentic leadership is a novel leadership approach which can more appropriately describe Obama’s leadership style (Friedman, 2008). Authentic Leadership style is perplexing because it has various meanings. First, it can be described in an interpersonal context, which states that genuine leadership emerges from the interaction of leaders and followers. Secondly, it could be described as intrapersonal, meaning it depends on the leader's ideas, self-awareness, or beliefs. Thirdly, the developmental context demonstrates that, unlike in earlier versions, leadership can be learned (Gavin, 2019). Obama is a US leader who has perfected inter and intrapersonal skills. As a leader, he was eager to learn and experiment with novel leadership techniques. Inside the White House, he had a strong rapport with the citizens and political followers (Leanne, 2010). His attitude to public issues portrayed a leader who cared about people.  Similarly, it would be imprudent to disregard the fact that Obama frequently cited previous US leaders, implying that he noticed their leadership methods and made conscious decisions about his leadership style (Kellerman, 2012). Moreover, even though most people regard him as charismatic, President Obama exemplified effective and genuine leadership without solely relying on his personality. He demonstrated that it is possible to employ various styles of leadership. He championed an inclusive America where he placed a high value on female equality in his government (White House, 2016). It would be unsuitable to discuss authentic leadership while neglecting the importance of self-discipline. During his presidency, Obama created a culture of order and discipline inside the executive department, which led to a notably low incidence of malfeasance throughout his administration. As a result, he gave his adherents structure and a vision, leading them to perform their duties with the country at heart (Moss, 2017). Obama became a symbol of the USA, demonstrating his worldwide impact and political clout ( Uri, 2017).

Barack Obama's life and career serve as a vivid example of the Great Man Theory's fallacy. As mentioned before, Obama's leadership talents were acquired via his upbringing, schooling, and life experiences as well as other inspirational leaders, rather than being natural. His approach to leadership displays his dedication to social justice, empathy, and sincerity and shows how his leadership style has imbedded him as a global leader even after his presidential terms.


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About the Author

Omar Ali

Omar Ali  is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the esteemed Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. His academic pursuits are centered around his specializations in global public policy, non-profit management, social entrepreneurship, development, and socio-economic policies. He is dedicated to using his expertise to impact society, particularly in underprivileged communities positively.

Prior to his current academic pursuits, he completed his undergraduate degree in accountancy from Beni Suef University in 2011. He spent a decade working as a Tax Officer at the Egyptian Tax Authority. During his tenure, he served in the Corporate Income Tax Department for seven years, followed by an additional three years at the Transfer Pricing Department, where he honed his skills in international taxation. His experience in tax administration and policy has given him a deep understanding of the complex issues surrounding fiscal policy and taxation, which he will bring to his future work in public policy. He is multilingual and proficient in Arabic, English, and German, enabling him to engage with diverse communities and cultures.

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~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~