What makes a man great?

Originally broadcast on Bayshore Broadcasting network, Sept. 3, 2011. 

Canadians seem to be of two minds when it comes to the death of Jack Layton.

Some of us say he was a great man who offered something rare to people: a politician with a heart.

Others look at all the out-pouring of condolence and think, this is way over the top. Jack was no ‘great man’ – he didn’t die for his country, he died from a nasty disease as millions do every day. He left no large legacy, as Trudeau did or John Diefenbaker who deserved their state funerals.

Myself, I think that the public expression of grief is as much about what Canadians don’t see in their politicians these days. But today, I’m wondering what it is that makes a man great. What makes a great woman is, I think, I hope, another question.

Is it just a matter of being prominent, of being famous? Movies stars are famous, but is George Clooney a great man? How about Bono? He does a lot of world-class charity work.

Or does it have something to do with timing? Being the right man in the right place at the right time – like Lord Nelson at Waterloo or Winston Churchill at the beginning of World War 2. Or Ted Rogers when the broadcasting revolution began in Canada. Or Bill Gates and Steve Jobs at the start of the computer age.

Does the acquisition of power—financial, political or military—make a man great? If so, does it matter if it is acquired at the expense of others? Every President of the United States has wielded great power, but are they all great men? Was George W Bush? Is Barak Obama?

Or is it all these things: prominence, luck, power. Maybe, but a lot of men have those whom we agree aren’t great. There must be something else …

I don’t have an answer to what it is that makes someone great. But if you do, I’d sure like to hear it.

So leave a comment, please.

© David McLaren
August 30, 2011

Yes Magazine (the website) has a good musing on “The hazards of manhood” … toughness isn’t everything; it’s not even the only thing.


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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3 Responses to What makes a man great?

  1. Hello David,
    The Jewish sages of antiquity said that a great man is one who does more than is required — by his job, by his life situation, by whatever measure might fairly be applied to him. I think Jack Layton could get over that hurdle without too much effort. And to recognize that it is not necessry to agree with everything he said, or having considered everything he said, to vote NDP.
    I think Trudeau would also get over that hurdle, though those who opposed the National Energy Policy might not agree. He presented Canada with a patriation year after year. He made formal proposals in 1968, 1970, 1976 and 1980. Then, in 1980, when the proposal had opposition but also had traction he stepped back and let the premiers and a parliamentary committee sort out the fine points. Both Layton and Trudeau knew when to pull in their horns and let the other guy sweat the details. My recollection from sitting in the visitors gallery of the House of Commons many times while Diefenbaker was in office, including the night he lost a vote of confidence and his Government was defeated gave us, at that time, the impression of a supremely rigid leader who would not bend one jot or one tittle (whatever that might be). If there are any Diefebanker Tories left I hoipe they will correct me.

    Best regards,
    Mickey Posluns.

    • Mickey: Interesting you mention John Diefenbaker in the way you do. During the Summit, the PM invoked him as the one who laid the foundation for the “modern” (PM’s word) relationship with Aboriginal people (no ‘s’). “Tittle,” by the way is any small thing, originally from typesetters’ word for those little accent marks on words or the dot over an i; the tiniest bit; a synonym for “jot”; also the degree to which some politicians honestly want to engage with First Nations.

  2. Owen johnston says:

    As history has shown, Great Men are men who speak of Peace and Equality and Love for their fellow man. The words of these men still resonate through the decades and the messages in these words have never had greater meaning than now. The men I feel were and continue to be great leaders are Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, their light on earth although short, burned very bright during their time on this planet.

    Owen Johnston.

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