Understanding the Trait Theory of Leadership

A Closer Look at Key Leadership Traits

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The trait theory of leadership focuses on identifying different personality traits and characteristics that are linked to successful leadership across a variety of situations. This line of research emerged as one of the earliest types of investigations into the nature of effective leadership and is tied to the "great man" theory of leadership first proposed by Thomas Carlyle in the mid-1800s.

Thomas Carlyle and the Trait Theory of Leadership

According to Carlyle, history is shaped by extraordinary leaders. This ability to lead is something that people are simply born with, Carlyle believed, and not something that could be developed. Carlyle's ideas inspired early research on leadership, which almost entirely focused on inheritable traits. Some of the implications of the trait theory of leadership are that:

  • Certain traits produce certain patterns of behavior
  • These patterns are consistent across different situations
  • People are born with these leadership traits

Controversy Over Leadership Traits

Early studies on leadership focused on the differences between leaders and followers with the assumption that people in leadership positions would display more leadership traits than those in subordinate positions. What researchers found, however, was that there were relatively few traits that could be used to distinguish between leaders and followers. For example, leaders tended to be higher in traits such as extroversion, self-confidence, and height, but these differences tended to be small.

There are some obvious problems with the trait approach to leadership. Since advocates of this theory suggested that certain traits were linked to strong leadership, why doesn't every person who exhibits these supposed “leadership traits” become a great leader? What about great leaders who don't possess the traits typically linked to leadership? What about the role of situational variables or characteristics of the group?

Important Research on Trait Theory of Leadership

Later research on the trait theory of leadership includes:

  • 1948—Ralph Melvin Stogdill's studies suggest that leadership is the result of the interaction between the individual and the social situation and not the result of a predefined set of traits.
  • 1974—Stodgill conducts additional studies which find that both traits and situational variables contribute to leadership.
  • 1980s—James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner survey more than 1,500 managers and find that the top four traits associated with good leadership are being honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. Kouzes and Posner refer to these four characteristics as "being credible."

Important Leadership Traits

Even today, books and articles tout the various characteristics necessary to become a great leader. Just do an online search on leadership traits and you'll come up with hundreds of websites that will give you a list.

Different researchers have conducted studies and research reviews linking a variety of different traits with effective leadership. For example, Stogdill's 1974 review of leadership traits identified qualities that included age, physique, and appearance, intelligence, knowledge, responsibility, and self-confidence

Research Points to Certain Leadership Traits

One recent group of studies was done regarding what employees prioritize in their leaders. Although intelligence and trustworthiness were consistently desired, the traits the employees desired in their leaders was dependent on the level of leadership they had. They tended to want more interpersonal traits such as compassion and agreeableness in their lower-level supervisors and more dominant traits such as ambition and assertiveness in their higher-level supervisors.

Some of the traits most commonly associated with great leadership include the following.

  1. Intelligence and Action-Oriented Judgment: Great leaders and smart and make choices that move the group forward.
  2. Eagerness to Accept Responsibility: Strong leaders take on responsibility and don't pass the blame on to others. They stand by their success and take ownership of their mistakes.
  3. Task Competence: A great leader is skilled and capable. Members of the group are able to look to the leader for an example of how things should be done.
  4. Understanding Followers and Their Needs: Effective leaders pay attention to group members and genuinely care about helping them succeed. They want each person in the group to succeed and play a role in moving the entire group forward.
  5. People Skills: Excellent interpersonal skills are essential for leading effectively. Great leaders know how to interact well with other leaders as well as with team members.
  6. Need for Achievement: Strong leaders have a need to succeed and help the group achieve their goals. They genuinely care about the success of the group and are committed to helping the group reach these milestones.
  1. Capacity to Motivate People: A great leader knows how to inspire others and motivate them to do their best.
  2. Courage and Resolution: The best leaders are brave and committed to the goals of the group. They do not hide from challenges.
  3. Perseverance: Strong leaders stick with it, even when things get difficult or the group faces significant obstacles.
  4. Trustworthiness: Group members need to be able to depend upon and trust the person leading them.
  5. Decisiveness: A great leader is capable of making a decision and is confident in his or her choices.
  6. Self-Confidence: Many of the best leaders are extremely self-assured. Because they are confident in themselves, followers often begin to share this self-belief.
  7. Assertiveness: A great leader is able to be direct and assertive without coming off as overly pushy or aggressive.
  8. Adaptability and Flexibility: Effective leaders don't get stuck in a rut. They are able to think outside of the box and adapt quickly to changing situations.
  9. Emotional Stability: In addition to being dependable overall, strong leaders are able to control their emotions and avoid overreactions.
  1. Creativity: Perhaps most importantly, great leaders not only possess their own creativity, they are also able to foster creativity among members of the group.

No Universal List of Traits Exists

More recently, many researchers have focused on a contingency approach to leadership which posits that people who possess certain traits can be more effective in some leadership situations and less so in others. While research has suggested that certain traits can sometimes be associated with strong leadership, it also shows that no universal list has emerged that identifies the traits that all great leaders possess or that will guarantee leadership success in all situations.

A Word From Verywell

While these traits are often linked to effective leadership, it is important to note that few leaders possess all of these traits. Generally, a strong leader will have many of these qualities, but aspects of the situation also play an important role in determining if people are able to lead well. In many cases, it is the interaction between these traits and the situation that determines leadership quality.

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