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The Great Man Syndrome

In our globalized age, vast impersonal forces are supposed to determine events. Globalized markets, unfettered trade, militant Islam, China’s awakening: these are the things historians and strategists usually portray as the key forces shaping our destiny. But most people don’t see things this way.

Instead, most people still instinctively look at “great men” as the agents of history, the men (and women) who seem to forge events through their political vision, personal charisma, and the force of their moral claims. By sheer force of conviction and personality, such figures, many of us believe, can carry the day, bringing a glimmer of hope to an otherwise detached and impersonal universe.

This yearning for providential men or women in our global age results from at least three factors. The first concerns the complexity and vulnerability of our world. The second, paradoxically, reflects our growing cynicism towards politics and politicians. And the third is the result of our media culture, obsessed as it is with putting a “face” to events.

Confronted with the problem of bringing about positive changes in a domestic or international environment that seems to defy the power of “normal” leaders, one looks for new Alexanders to untie the “Gordian knot” and transcend complexity by sheer force of will and dynamism. For example, structural reforms in Europe are thought impossible to enact unless imposed by some reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher. In the Middle East, everyone waits for a new Anwar Sadat to arise among the Arabs.