Leaders are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected.
Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.
Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.
Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.
Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.