Understanding the Trait Theory of Leadership

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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

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."

Traits Associated With Leadership

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:

Recent Research on Trait Leadership

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.

The traits they were asked to rank include:

  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Extraversion
  • Open-mindedness
  • Ambition
  • Assertiveness
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Cooperativeness
  • Supportiveness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Trustingness
  • Intelligence

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.

Sources:

Lussier R, Achua C. Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning; 2012.

Nichols AL, Cottrell CA. What Do People Desire in Their Leaders? the Role of Leadership Level on Trait Desirability. The Leadership Quarterly. August 2014;25(4):711-729. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.04.001.

Shriberg A, Shriberg D. Practicing Leadership Principles and Applications. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons; 2011.

Stogdill RM. Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research. New York: Free Press; 1974.