How is history made? How does change happen?
There are two main schools of thought.
First is the “Great Man” theory, which was popularized in the 19th Century. Essentially saying that it’s individuals that are the primary movers in a system. If a system changes, it’s because an individual changed it.
Imagine people like Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, and Mary Wollstonecraft who pulled not just themselves but their entire societies up by their bootstraps. We can point to “the 3.5% rule,” which shows that it takes only 3.5% of the population actively participating in a movement to bring about serious change.
This is in line with the wisdom of cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who told us “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
On the other side of the coin is what we call “extra-human dynamics” governing the course of events. For example, when a young cub reporter asked the 1950’s British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan what was the greatest impediment to Government policy succeeding, Macmillan answered, “Events, dear boy, events.”
The argument being that the system itself evolves spontaneously over time, and pulls (mostly powerless) individuals along with it. Imagine history plowing through humanity like the latter was a field of daisies. This was the main thesis of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, also Marx believed it as well, calling it “Historical Determinism.”
So which one is a closer reflection of reality? Neither. Too much Historical Determinism, you end up with the Soviet Union. Too much “Great Man” theory and you end up with that nasty short guy with the little mustache. Both alternatives lead to tyranny when left unchecked.
This applies to business as well. A great company needs a great culture, but it also needs a great leader. Neither can flourish without both. Yes, a great leader can help steer the company to having a great culture, but a great leader is not the culture itself. Like everything else of exceptional value that exists in this world, it’s a complex system.