Trait Leadership Theory

Understanding the Emergence of Leaders Based on the Trait Theory

The trait leadership theory grew out of the great man theoryOpens in new window in the 1930s – 1940s and further argued that people are either born or made with certain traits or qualities that will make them excel in leadership roles.

Traits are the distinguishing personal characteristics of a leader, such as intelligence, honesty, self-confidence, creativity, and even appearance.

Traits, by definition, are the underlying predispositions of individuals to act or behave in particular ways.

Therefore, certain qualities such as intelligence, sense of responsibility, creativity and other values can put anyone in the shoes of a good leader.

The trait theory of leadership therefore focused on understanding what is the characteristic or the combination of characteristics that are common among leaders.

Trait theories are used to predict effective leadership. Usually, the identified characteristics are compared to those of potential leaders to determine their likelihood of leading effectively.

Early trait theories said that leadership is an innate, instinctive quality that you do or don’t have. Over the years, the focus has moved on from this idea, as we have learned more about what can be done to develop leadership qualities.

While trait theories help us identify traits and qualities, none of these traits, nor any specific combination of them, will guarantee success as a leader.

One groundbreaking review in the late 1940s concluded that no consistent list of leadership traits could be distilled from previous research. This conclusion was revised a decade later, suggesting that a few traits are associated with effective leaders.

Because traits are external behaviors that emerge from the things going on within our minds—it is these internal beliefs and processes that are important for effective leadership. These non-significant findings caused many scholars to give up their search for the personal characteristics of effective leaders at the time.

Important Leadership Skills and Attributes

Over the past two decades, leadership experts have returned to the notion that effective leaders possess specific personal attributes. The more recent interest in trait theories and more specifically personal attributes has focused on trying to identify leadership characteristics from different perspectives.

Initially, the focus was primarily on the physiological attributes such as appearance, weight, and height; demographics such as age, education, and familial background; and intelligence, which encompasses decisiveness, judgment, and knowledge. More recent studies have consistently identified several skills and attributes identified with effective leadership or leader emergence.

Four Basic Skills All Leaders Need

Knowledge and skills are extremely important for all leaders. According to researchers there are four basic skills leaders need (see Table X-1).

Table 1.1 Four Basic Skills for Leaders
What Leaders NeedAnd Why
Cognitive abilities to identify problems and their causes in rapidly changing situations.Leaders must sometimes devise effective solutions in short time spans with limited information.
Interpersonal skills to influence and persuade others.Leaders need to work well with divers people.
Business skills to maximize the use of organizational assets.Leaders increasingly need business skills as they advance up through the organization.
Strategic skills to draft an organization’s mission, vision, strategies, and implementation plans.Strategic skills matter most for individuals in the top ranks in an organization.

Leadership Attributes

Eight important leadership attributes (not in any particular order) that leaders need have also been identified: personality, self-concept, leadership motivation, drive, integrity, knowledge of business, cognitive and practical intelligence, and emotional intelligence (see Table X-2). There is every indication that the search for personal attributes that identify the characteristics of effective leaders will continue.

Table 1.2 Personal Attributes of Effective Leaders
Leadership AttributeDescription
PersonalityEffective leaders have higher extraversion (outgoing, talkative, sociable, and assertive) and conscientiousness (careful, dependable, and self-disciplined).
Self-conceptEffective leaders have strong self-beliefs and a positive self-evaluation about their own leadership skills and ability to achieve objectives.
Leadership MotivationEffective leaders have a need for socialized power (not personalized power) to accomplish team or organizational goals.
DriveEffective leaders have an inner motivation to pursue goals.
IntegrityEffective leaders have strong moral principles, which are demonstrated through truthfulness and consistence of words with deeds.
Knowledge of the BusinessEffective leaders have tacit and explicit knowledge about the organization’s environment, enabling them to make more intuitive decisions.
Cognitive and Practical Intelligence Effective leaders have above-average cognitive ability to process information (cognitive intelligence) and ability to solve real-world problems by adapting to, shaping, or selecting appropriate environments (practical intelligence).
Emotional IntelligenceEffective leaders have the ability to recognize and regulate their own emotions and the emotions of others.