Ever wonder what distinguishes leaders from followers, or what personality traits they possess? Several theories of leadership exist and each has slightly different answers to these questions. The trait approach, for example, is based on the idea that people are born with specific personality traits that remain stable over time. According to this theory, leaders have innate skills and qualities that allow them to succeed in their career and stand out from the rest.

Understanding Gordon Allport's Trait Theory

Also known as the trait theory of leadership, the trait approach is attributed to Gordon Allport, one of the pioneers of personality physiology. Back in the 1930s, he compiled a list of 4,500 personality traits and grouped them into three categories: central traits, cardinal traits and secondary traits.

Honesty, kindness, shyness, intelligence and other central traits shape an individual's personality and behavior. Cardinal traits, on the other hand, define a person; Einstein, for example, was famous for his brilliant mind, while Martin Luther King, Jr. had a strong sense of justice. Secondary traits are only present in certain situations and may explain why most people behave differently when they are stressed, excited, angry and so on. An otherwise calm person, for example, can become anxious and moody before presenting a project in front of a large audience.

Gordon Allport's trait theory assumes that each individual has a unique psychological structure and that certain traits contribute to successful leadership. In other words, great leaders are born not made. Several other theories were developed over the years, including the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, the Big Five model and Hans Eysenck's three-factor model. The Big Five, for instance, states that human personality is defined by five personality traits, such as conscientiousness and extroversion.

The Trait Approach to Leadership

In the early 20th century, psychologists tried to determine what separates leaders from non-leaders and what makes them successful. According to the trait theory, certain personality traits like confidence, flexibility, initiative, integrity, emotional intelligence and charisma define great leaders and can be used to predict leadership effectiveness.

Ralph Stogdill, Michael M. Lombardo, Morgan W. McCall and other researchers identified several traits, skills and qualities that all effective leaders have in common:

  • Assertiveness.
  • Persistence.
  • Resilience to stress.
  • High energy.
  • Strong decision-making skills.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Drive and motivation.
  • Honesty.
  • Intelligence.
  • Creativity.
  • Knowledge of business.
  • Good interpersonal skills.
  • Emotional stability.
  • Adaptable to new situations.
  • Tact and diplomacy.
  • The desire to lead others.

The trait approach to leadership assumes that leaders are born with these traits. For example, an individual who lacks confidence won’t become confident over time and hence cannot be a good leader. Researchers also use the trait theory in criminology and other fields to build psychological profiles and understand why people behave the way they do.

Limitations of the Trait Theory

The strength of this theory lies in its ability to categorize specific personality traits and how they influence human behavior. This was one of the first attempts to study leadership and the factors that define it. Modern research, though, contradicts these findings.

First of all, the trait theory attributes more than 100 different qualities, including physical traits, to great leaders. These are mere generalizations and may not apply to all great leaders. Additionally, it's hard to define a "good" leader without being subjective.

The trait theory focuses solely on the leader and doesn't take the situation into account. The above personality traits can help individuals emerge as leaders in one situation but not in another. For example, you might have what it takes to lead a small team, but this doesn't mean that you have the skills and experience required to manage an entire department. Additionally, many of the traits identified can be developed through practice and training.