The world has steadily changed since 19th-century philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously stated that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” (And women, as he might have added today.)
It is more obvious now that great ideas influence the course of events more than great leaders, especially when they are spread with the speed of a YouTube video or Twitter message. The Arab Spring in Egypt showed the power of social media to advance the idea that every person deserves liberty and dignity. With that realization by the masses, Hosni Mubarak fell quickly.
“Leaders are increasingly vulnerable to forces beyond their control,” writes Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman, author of a new book, “The End of Leadership.”
History can seem so random if it relies only on the sudden appearance of a great leader. Ideas, however, are always readily available – and accessible to anyone, whether they are technical, cultural, spiritual, or economic. They provide a vision for an entire society, not the sole visionary.
America’s Founders knew that the people might see them as great and not recognize the great ideas they put forth for a new nation. By 1808, when Americans began a near worship of the late George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams about how the Founding Fathers had become unassailable heroes – and the danger in such thinking: