Surveying reaction to the passing of Nelson Mandela, Joshua Tucker ably states the view of many political and social scientists on the importance of leaders: they matter less than is commonly assumed. Compared to journalists, policymakers, historians, and citizens, political scientists attribute less importance to individual political figures and more to broader causes
Why do political scientists place less emphasis on the importance of individual leaders? One reason is that science means moving from studying specific phenomena to developing general explanations.
…But this way of viewing leaders should give us pause. As Henry Kissinger once mused, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.”
Stephen Dyson writing at the Monkey Cage.
I’d say leaders and personalities are grossly under-researched (quantitatively at least) in social science. A terrific exception is this paper by the Bens.