The Trait Approach to Leadership

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When it comes to leadership, does personality matter? That's the question that the trait theory of leadership seeks to explore. It supports the idea that effective leaders are different from regular people in certain key respects, and personality traits such as drive, tenacity, integrity and self-confidence are really all that's needed to excel in a leadership role.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The trait approach to leadership asserts that leaders are not like other people. Rather, they possess certain characteristics, or traits, that allow them to lead successfully. You can be born with the traits, or they can be learned.

Theory of the Great Man

In the late 19th and early 20th century before the trait theory came about, the consensus was that leaders were born and not made. Specifically, people largely believed that leadership qualities were inherited, usually by the upper classes and always by men, and that leadership was not something that could be learned. These "great men" had, by virtue of their genetics, the brilliance to head up complex organizations and to lead countries.

What Is the Trait Leadership Approach?

Early in the 20th century, the Great Man theory evolved into the trait leadership approach – "trait" meaning a person's characteristics, motivations and patterns of behavior. This approach shared the idea that leaders are great by virtue of the characteristics or traits that they possess. Only this time, it made no assumptions about whether those characteristics were inherited or acquired through experience and learning. In other words, great leaders may be born great leaders, but they can also be made.

What Traits Are Associated With Effective Leadership?

Over the years, researchers have tried to identify the traits that are associated with effective leadership. These typically fall into the following categories:

Drive

Drive represents a constellation of traits reflecting a high level of motivation. It includes such characteristics as ambition, energy, initiative, tenacity and a strong need for achievement. Good leaders are tirelessly persistent in their endeavors. They do not fear challenges and are doggedly determined to succeed.

Desire to Lead

Successful leaders want to work their way to the top of an organization. They're ambitious about their work and have a desire to get ahead. They set challenging goals for themselves and others and want everyone within their scope of influence to succeed and play a role in moving the organization forward. They show initiative and make deliberate choices instead of just waiting for things to happen.

Honesty and Integrity

Successful leaders are truthful in act and deed. Their leadership may be undermined if they do not act consistently. Many successful leaders have an open style of leadership where workers are informed about what's happening in the company, and alternative views are taken into account. Powerful leaders are accountable for their actions and do not point the finger of blame.

Self-Confidence

Being a leader is a tough job, and leaders must have faith in their own abilities if they are to succeed. Good leaders are able to be assertive and decisive in their decision making (without being pushy), and they must have the self-assurance to be able to change their minds and adapt quickly to changing situations.

People Skills

Not only is the leader's self-confidence important, but so is other people's perception of it. Thus, a great leader must be able to persuade and influence people. They must be able to earn the trust of their followers and motivate them to do their best. Good leaders take account of other people's needs and empower them to succeed.

Emotional Stability

Strong leaders are able to control their emotions and avoid flying off the handle. They make smart, rational choices that move the organization forward and are not swayed by their personal feelings on a matter. Powerful leaders remain calm in a crisis and are predictable in their responses.

Competency Traits

Great leaders have a keen mind, are skilled in the role and have deep knowledge of the business. They have the "right stuff" from a business experience point of view as well as behaviorally. The people within their purview can look upon the leader as a role model for how things should be done.

Limitations of the Trait Theory of Leadership

On the surface, the trait theory sounds compelling. Intellectually, it makes sense that leaders possess certain characteristics that set them apart from everyone else. The problem is that researchers have never managed to narrow down the specific personality traits that all good leaders exhibit.

For example, studies have shown that leaders tend to have higher levels of extroversion and self-confidence than the general population. However, the differences tended to be small, and there are plenty of examples of successful leaders who are introverted, authoritarian, unstable and unjust: Hitler is widely described as being electrifying despite failing to possess many of the traits. Plus, there are no definitive tests for the measurement of these personality characteristics, so it's difficult to draw any sensible conclusions.

More Criticism of the Trait Theory of Leadership

Perhaps more controversial is the idea that some people don't possess and may never possess the traits to become leaders. This approach fails on two levels. First, it overlooks social and economic inequalities that could limit a person's potential to lead. Second, it fails to recognize that one size does not fit all in leadership.

Few people will argue that the traits that someone needs to lead an army into battle are the exact same traits that someone needs to lead a multinational business, launch a creative tech company or initiate a campaign for social justice. Trait theory falls down because it focuses too narrowly on a specific list of traits. It does not try to figure out which traits are desirable in which contexts.

The bottom line is that personality traits, while potentially relevant, can only endow people with the potential for leadership. Something else has to happen before this potential can be actualized. By the latest thinking, that something is the person's situation.

Moving Away From Trait Theory

The situational theory of leadership suggests that no set of traits is superior, and no leadership style is best. Everyone who wants it has the power to become a great leader. What matters is the environment in which he works and whether the leader can adapt his personal leadership style to best suit the needs of the situation.

For example, by the path-goal theory of leadership, leaders must choose between telling people what to do, supporting people through their work, consulting with followers before making a decision or setting challenging goals and allowing employees the freedom to achieve those goals by themselves.

The key here is group dynamics, or how different people need different styles of leadership depending on their work styles and level of maturity on the job. Despite the traits a successful leader may possess, these alone will not be enough for good leadership to occur in all situations and for all people. People and organizations are too complicated to be led by traits alone.

References

About the Author

Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a business writer. Her articles have appeared on numerous business sites including Typefinder, Women in Business, Startwire and Indeed.com.