Thursday, October 6, 2011

Great Men Theory

There is a theory of history that great men shaped our current society.  Regular, normal people could not do it, could not build empires or win wars, but these men did.  And their mothers, of course, who shaped them (tongue in cheek here).  Think Julius Caesar, George Washington, Christopher Columbus.

While these men are important, I think it's worth noting that only very rarely does some act completely alone.  There are always people who make it happen.  Either they were the grandparents who worked overtime to send a child to college, ancestors who moved to a land of more opportunity or even the silent long-suffering spouse who does everything so the artist can create.

That was my response to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and it's my response when I hear the claim that one man or woman changed a generation.  In Outliers, Gladwell outlines just how so many successful men became life-changing and revolutionized the way we view things.  There were a whole host of factors that created an environment where change was possible.  A host of parents, teachers, community members, economic realities nurtured success. 

While leadership is important, it's shortsighted to believe that only a leader is responsible for success, of a country, of a company, of a school.  It's the people who go to work every day, the parent(s) who are there each night, the people who make change possible. Great figures are a strange coincidence of fate and possibility - being in the right place at the right time. Would they be great if they had to spend hours doing their own laundry? I wonder.

That's not to say we shouldn't mourn someone's passing, or recognize a person's good deeds.  And it is true that sometimes a person is not appreciated now, but is appreciated with the passing of time.

I believe we sell ourselves short when we don't recognize that our everyday efforts might lead to bigger and better things - and may lead to change. 

Whether or not it's true, many public figures will recognize this.  They will mention all the people who helped them along the way.  That's not necessarily false humility, I believe they mention it because it's true.       

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