Great Man and Zeitgeist are two theories to explain landmark social changes in any civilization.
Great Man theory says that some great person with unparelleled charisma and a strong belief system led the entire civilization onto a new course of development/destruction. Basically, the entire responsibility/credit of a social phenomenon is attributed to one person. Examples are Alexandar leading his army all the way to India, Napolean fighting with all the Europe, and Hitler starting a war that engulfed the whole world. We all are very familiar with this theory as 99.99% of history is written with this view.
On the other hand is the Zeitgeist theory which advocates “The Spirit of the Time”. Accordingly to Zeitgeist theory, France (led by Napolean) had such social conditions that gave rise to the desire of concurring Europe. For this desire to materialize, different people of different calibre had to assume different roles. Leader of the army was one such role and Napolean just happened to be in such a position that he became the leader of that army. If it wasn’t Napolean, it would have been someone else. If you want more understanding of this paradigm, I highly recommend War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It is a must read classic anyways.
After some deliberation on this subject, I have come to believe in following the middle ground. Both the theories take extreme positions but I believe there is usually a combination of the two leading to landmark social changes. But that doesn’t mean I believe equally in both the theories. I believe Zeitgeist to be the primary theory. For a fundamental social change, the change has to be part of the Spirit of the Time. The change will occur even if there wasn’t any great person. The history is full of examples where a social change was led by the masses in general instead of some Hero in particular. Europe’s revolution is one example. And the growth that India is experiencing today is just another. There is no great person in India today who is directing its growth. It is just a movement of masses.
However, there have been great people throughout the history and they have definitely done much more than being mere puppets in the hands of time. The Spirit of the Time creates conditions which can be exploited and directed by charismatic people who are the embodiments of the social values prevalent in the society at that point of time. If you notice, such great people were always the product of times when their society was going through a lot of turbulence. And whenever that turbulence subsided, these people lost all the power that had. For instance, Winston Churchil was ousted after the world war II got over. He was the embodiment of those values that the society sought during the world war. Hence, everybody in that society aligned himself/herself towards with Winston Churchil. This increased manifold the impact that these people could make as they had achieved the common alignment of interests and their energies were spent in the same direction. However, as soon as the war got over and the peace ensued, what was important for the people got changed. And these very people who had so willingly aligned themselves with Winston Churchil didn’t want him at the helm anymore.
So, there was a very positive significance of Churchil being at the helm during world war. Even though the entire success of British army cannot be attributed solely to his leadership, it is important to recognize that not everybody could have played that role and if that role was not played so well, the victory wouldn’t have been so spectacular.
[My history is weak. Don’t mind if I have got some historical facts incorrect. I want to convey my theory and not a historical fact.]