Leadership Trait Theory

See also: Leadership Styles

Leadership trait theory is one of the earliest theories of leadership, which can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 assertion that “the history of the world was the biography of great men”.

It is the idea that there are certain inborn traits that make people more likely to succeed as leaders: in essence, it states that leaders are born, not made.

Early research on leadership looked at what distinguished leaders from followers, on the assumption that those who had emerged as leaders were likely to have more leadership traits than their followers.

Many studies found that there was not much difference between the two groups, which they put down to errors in selecting leaders. However, since the purpose of identifying leadership traits was to make it easier to identify potential leaders, this lack of difference was a bit worrying.

The popularity of trait theory has come and gone over the years. Up until the early 1950s, it was really the only theory of leadership that was considered valid.

However, in 1948, a researcher called Stogdill noticed that people who were leaders in one situation were not necessarily leaders in other situations, which rather destroyed trait theory, and situational and behavioural theories started to emerge.

Traits, Behaviours and Situations

Leadership trait theory says that there are defined personality traits that distinguish leaders from followers.

In other words, leaders are different types of people from followers.

Behavioural theories of leadership state that it is the behaviour of leaders that distinguishes them from their followers.

In other words, leadership is a skill that can be taught.

Situational leadership theories state that a leader emerges to fit the situation. Different people will take the lead in different situations.

This suggests that different situations require different skills.

Modern Trait Theory

Having thoroughly discredited trait theory at the end of the last century, researchers have more recently started to look at it again.

However, this time, the approach is more nuanced, and considers whether there are aspects of personality that make people more likely to become and succeed as leaders.

This is not to say that leaders cannot be made, and leadership skills cannot be taught, but rather that there are certain traits that mean people are more likely to seek out leadership positions.

For example, a majority of leaders are extroverted: they enjoy the company of others, and seek out public positions.

Other modern approaches are even more sophisticated, and enable researchers to study combinations of traits that may be effective in particular situations, thus combining trait theory with situational theories of leadership.

Kirkpatrick and Locke neatly combine the two, by suggesting that there are key traits which help people to acquire the necessary skills for leadership, develop a vision for themselves and others, and then implement the vision.

They suggest that research shows that the key traits for leaders are:

  • Drive, a broad term which they use to encompass the concepts of having a record of achievement, being strongly motivated and ambitious, having energy and tenacity, and being able to take the initiative;

  • Leadership motivation, which is the desire to lead others, often because of the development of a clear vision of where the company or organisation should be. It is very firmly not about the desire for power in itself;

  • Honesty and integrity, which is about presenting an honest picture of yourself, so that your followers will respect you;

  • Self-confidence, which is associated with emotional stability;

  • Cognitive ability, often described as intelligence; and

  • Knowledge of the business, which is thought to be essential for credibility. However, this does not always follow, as there are plenty of examples of highly successful CEOs being brought in precisely because they did not know the business and so would be more likely to encourage disruptive innovation.

Kirkpatrick, S.A. and Locke, E.A. (1991) “Leadership: do traits matter?”, Academy of Management Perspectives, 5(2), 48-60

There is apparently less clear evidence for traits such as charisma, creativity and flexibility, although they are often considered essential for successful leadership.

A pragmatic thought...

Most of these broad descriptions probably seem somewhat obvious as potential leadership traits. After all, those lacking them are much less likely to seek out, or be successful in achieving leadership positions.

For example, someone who lacks drive, leadership motivation and self-confidence is not going to apply for a job as a CEO, or even seek to take on a leadership role in an informal group outside work.

This raises the question of whether leaders need these traits, or are merely more likely to possess them.

In other words, does having them make you a better leader, or just more likely to become a leader in the first place? This is a question to which there is no easy answer.

As with many academic theories, leadership trait theory is perhaps best thought of as an interesting idea, but one which should not handicap you if you wish to seek a position as leader, whether formally or informally.

For all the great leaders in history that have possessed many of the traits considered ideal, there are many more who did not.

It seems likely that successful leadership is as much a result of wanting to be successful, and working out how best to achieve this, as about possessing any particular personality traits.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

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