Leadership is often portrayed as something that sets you apart from the crowd. Something that makes you stand out as better than others.

This means that as you strive to become a great leader, you start working on achieving the skills you don’t have. You endeavor to perfect yourself, often to become what other people will call a great leader.

Leadership stems from the inside as it seeks to achieve a goal. This goal is never for personal gain but always for the greater good. As much as the leader will benefit in leading others, the most important thing for him is to see the lives of others changed for the better.

With fewer leaders than followers, many would desire to become leaders. The reasons abound: social status, more money, perceived ability to make people do what you want done etc.

But what is leadership really about?

Leadership has earned itself many different meanings over the years. Not because it keeps changing but because there are many ways of looking at it.

Various explanations have been given as to how leadership came into being and how to spot a leader from a distance. These are more commonly known as theories of leadership.

In this guide, we will discuss the Trait Theory of leadership. You will learn how it came into existence, what it proposes, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

THE TRAIT THEORY

The trait theory is one of the oldest theories in existence seeking to describe great leadership. It developed off the great man theory which was popularized by the Scottish philosopher and teacher Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s.

Thomas Carlyle gave lectures on leadership in 1840 and cited highly influential figures of society with both divine and poetic abilities. These included Muhammad, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Cromwell and Odin (Norse Mythology).

These became very popular and brought to the fore the idea that great leadership was based on certain endowments the leaders had.

Having been influenced by Carlyle’s work, Francis Galton wrote a book in 1869 called Hereditary Genius, in which he described leadership as an immutable property endowed to extraordinary individuals.

Apart from the qualities of leadership being immutable, Galton believed that they could also not be developed. They were simply inborn.

For a long time, this line of thinking was embraced until the late 1940s when some theorists began registering different perspectives of leadership.

Since the great man theory had shown the qualities of great leaders as what made them great, studies about the trait theory did not deviate from that. These studies centered on the traits exhibited by those leaders since these are what could be observed.

The research and studies spanned many years but the biggest contributions towards the development of this theory were made by a few notable researchers.

Below we look at some of the contributions in the order in which the findings were published. This theory enjoyed a lot of attention over the years, including being rejected at one point. It however got a new lease of life later and still exists in some circles.

1948

Ralph Melvin Stogdill makes public his conclusions of research and analyses. The analyses included work by other researchers spanning between 1907 and 1947.

In this duration, Stogdill compiled many findings from various studies, including one from Smith and Kruger (1933) which had concluded that leadership occurred among all people and not just “special people.”

There were two major conclusions by Stogdill as seen in his findings.

#1. The number of times a trait was investigated was not directly related to its importance for leadership. He noted that some leadership traits had received more attention than others yet this did not prove that those with them were better than those with more of other traits.

For example, he found the trait Technical Skills in 18 different studies. He however found the trait Intellectual Skills in only 12 studies. From his studies, technical skills were not more important than intellectual skills.

The importance of this was to point to specific traits which were more important than others. In narrowing down the list of traits, it would have been easier to pinpoint potential leaders. Also, it would have been easier to identify those regarded as great leaders in history.

#2. The traits possessed by a leader must be relevant to the situation in which he is functioning. In essence, this meant that leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations.

Stogdill reached this conclusion by analyzing the group situations which had been used in many of the studies done. Whereas a certain group existed within certain situations, another existed in a different situation.

Looking at the leaders in both groups showed them to have different traits exhibited as required for the situations their groups were in. This conclusion is what brought about a new perspective to leadership research.

The general conclusion by Stogdill at this point was that traits alone could not be accurately used to define a leader. The success of the leader had to be studied on the basis of both the traits he had and the situation he was in.

This set the stage for widespread rejection of the trait theory as many scholars agreed that specific traits in a leader could only be useful in specific situations. As such, if someone had traits initially deemed to be leadership traits but the situation didn’t require their use, then he could not become an effective leader.

After this rejection, some theories seemed to replace the trait theory. Some of them were the contingency model of leadership, managerial grid, situational leadership and transactional leadership.

The traits which Stogdill concluded to be important for leadership were Intelligence, Alertness, Insight, Responsibility, Initiative, Persistence, Self-confidence and Sociability.

1959

Richard D. Mann, a professor at the University of Michigan conducted a study on many findings about leadership. Mann focused on the findings about personality and leadership in small groups.

Although he used more than 1,400 study results, Mann did not consider situational factors as of great importance in leadership. As such, his study suggested that indeed personality traits could be used to positively distinguish leaders from non-leaders.

Mann’s conclusions have been said to be tentative. All the same, his work earns a place in the history of the trait theory since from his findings, he listed some traits which he saw as important for leadership.

These traits are Intelligence, Masculinity, Adjustment, Dominance, Extroversion and Conservatism.

1974

Studies on leadership did not stop and after his conclusions in 1948, Stogdill did more research. He analyzed 163 studies of leadership traits done between 1948 and 1970. He then compared the findings in this analysis with those he had in his initial analysis (1948).

The findings he published were more balanced in terms of acknowledging the need for leadership traits as well as the role played by the situation. Interestingly, the same man whose work caused the rejection of the trait theory was now presenting evidence supporting the importance of leadership traits.

Some of the key findings in comparison to his previous survey include:

  • Physical characteristics were not important for leadership. Initially, characteristics like height and weight had been mentioned as important for a leadership position. These were however proven to be complementary to a leader but not necessary. An example of how this was not crucial for leadership is by considering basketball players. Generally, good basketball players are tall. However, that does not automatically make them great leaders. In fact, their coaches are not necessarily as tall as the players.
  • High levels of energy contributed to the success of a leader. Highly successful leaders exhibited high levels of energy which helped the leader engage in physical activities. High energy levels also helped in the natural motivation of followers.
  • The age factor. Leadership was noted as something that starts early. Put differently, the potential to become a leader is evident from an early age. It had been assumed that only mature people could lead or have the ability to lead.

Stogdill’s second survey showed that leaders showed signs of great achievement from an early age. And since what is evident in them is mainly their traits, this helped the theory further cement its place.

The traits that Stogdill’s second survey concluded to be important for leadership are Achievement, Persistence, Insight, Initiative, Self-confidence, Responsibility, Cooperativeness, Tolerance, Influence and Sociability.

1986

Mann’s (1959) findings were reassessed by Lord, DeVader, & Alliger (1986). They used meta-analysis to find out just how consistent the study results were. They intended to identify the traits which significantly impacted how people perceived leaders.

This happened at a time when male leadership was most prevalent in business and society. As such, it was quite natural that the traits picked would be reflective of the male gender. The traits identified by these researchers as important for leadership were Intelligence, Masculinity and Dominance.

1991

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) argued in favor of the uniqueness of leaders. They stated that leaders were very different from non-leaders and the difference was in the traits they exhibited.

In their conclusions, they cited a 20-year study by psychologists Ann Howard and  Douglas Bray. This study found that from a sample of AT&T managers, the desire for advancement determined the attainment of success twenty years later. This was seen as drive towards success.

Whereas some individual managers showed less ambition than others, one of those rated as ambitious was ready to leave the company if his aspirations were thwarted. He would also make the same move if he found the challenge lacking.

They identified six traits as differentiating between leaders and other people. These are Drive, Motivation, Integrity, Confidence, Cognitive Ability and Task Knowledge.

2004

Towards the turn of the millennium, social intelligence made it to the list of traits to be studied. It was established that an effective leader is one who was socially intelligent. This is defined as the ability of a leader to understand his own feelings as well as those of others.

Part of what constituted social intelligence was social awareness, social acumen and self-monitoring. These had already been seen as being necessary for effective leadership and had been identified by several studies done on leadership traits.

Zaccaro, Kemp, and Bader (2004) concluded that the traits which were important for leadership could be said to be a combination of good levels of both IQ (Cognitive Intelligence) and EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

The traits they listed were Cognitive Abilities, Extroversion, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Openness, Agreeableness, Motivation, Social Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence and Problem Solving skills.

2006 and beyond

The trait theory can be said to be undergoing more development since more studies on leadership traits are being carried out. These further studies seem to be fueled by the lack of a complete list of traits needed for leadership.

A major trait coming up in studies is charisma. Charisma makes you attractive. Others say it is charming, even bewitching. In itself, it is a powerful tool, at least going by how it enables those with it to gain massive loyalty and commitment from followers.

Jung and Sosik (2006) reported findings from a study intended to distinguish between charismatic and non-charismatic leaders. They found that highly charismatic leaders showed high levels of self-monitoring, self-actualization, motive to attain social power and self-enhancement.

One of the most popular leaders labeled as a charismatic leader was Barack Obama. He was very articulate and managed to deeply connect with many Americans.

In other studies, Hoffman, Woehr, Maldagen-Youngjohn, & Lyons (2011) found that charisma played a significant role in the success of a leader.

TRAITS FOR LEADERSHIP

Passing through several hands, this theory has not managed to settle on an exhaustive list of traits required to make one an effective leader.

Various researchers have come up with different traits which are meant to be credentials for leadership. As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge in adopting this theory wholeheartedly is the fact that purely on the basis of traits, an effective leader in one situation may not be as good in another.

All the same, we discuss below some of the traits listed by the researchers. After that, we will look at the major strengths and weaknesses of this theory.

Initiative

This theory identified taking initiative as one of the traits required for leadership. It is obvious that not many people take initiative.

This is mainly due to the fear of making a mistake. Normally, you wouldn’t want to be blamed when things go wrong. It is just natural that people want to stay safe. This tendency to prefer safety and maintain the status quo is what leaders lack.

Leaders would rather have a solution that is not perfect then work on improving it. To them, this is way better than having a problem remain unsolved for the sake of being safe. They would rather be wrong but try out something.

Watch the below video on the importance of initiative.

This can also be seen as risk taking. This risk taking is however not poorly thought out. Leaders usually have more knowledge than the followers thus able to make good-enough decisions. This is possible even in situations where there isn’t a lot of information available.

Leaders always subject themselves to learning and this is obviously how they get ‘extra’ knowledge. It could be the formal attendance of school or just gaining it through experience in handling many problems.

Knowledge of the business

This makes the leader stand out from the crowd in that the leader will more often than not have answers which others do not have.

Before getting into a certain field or industry, any leader will normally have done his homework well. Although there can never be perfect preparation, they do it well enough to be able to run things. Apart from research, things work best if the leader has hands-on knowledge of the core business.

In acquiring knowledge, you will find that leaders do not just focus on their industries only. If they did this, then they would quickly get stuck. Leaders learn about everything that affects what they are doing.

For example, if he is in the manufacturing industry, he will not be interested in his competition only. He will also seek knowledge about the industry supplying him with raw materials. More than that, he will learn as much as possible about the market he sells to.

It is not uncommon for leaders to be well informed about the industries which are not necessarily related to their business but whose instabilities can affect him.

For example, the financial sector may not have a direct relation with his business. But he understands that if there are certain risks which face that industry, they can cause the banks to come up with unfavorable terms for lending.

Such knowledge which the average person may not have is what enables the leader make wise decisions, even ahead of time.

Cognitive skills

There is no doubt that leaders are smart people. Not that others aren’t, but there is a difference in the level of smartness. Part of it can be explained by some of the traits already discussed, like knowledge.

Still, something else is required.

Leaders have developed their minds so as to be able to provide solutions. They understand that the world is full of challenges and so they take it as their responsibility to provide solutions.

Though they may not be the most educated in the specific industry, they have sufficiently developed themselves for the task at hand. Leaders will normally engage others who are specialized than they are but can also put in the effort to manage things with little help when necessary.

Cognitive skills are easily seen when decisions need to be made. Especially in the absence of enough information about a situation. This is where quick thinking is needed, yet it also has to produce positive results.

Energetic and self driven

Leaders will always have the ability to do a lot of work. Not necessarily overwork themselves, but they can go for long hours without resting. This is mostly needed when they are starting a new project or when there is an issue which needs sorting.

As people who take the initiative, they naturally push themselves to the limit to get the solution that is needed. Leaders always look to establish the change that is needed for a better life.

You will see them attend long meetings, work long hours, consult many experts and do a lot of research. They will be self-driven towards achieving their goals and rarely need external motivation.

Although this becomes more evident during crises, leaders have this ability inside them and it sets them apart from non-leaders.

During normal times, this energy is seen through the way they interact with other people. For example, leaders are rarely gloomy or lacking in motivation. They are always psyched up and ready to tackle the challenges of the day.

Flexibility

It is required that a leader should have the ability to make or adapt to changes when necessary so as to remain relevant during different times. The short video below talks of the importance of flexibility in leadership.

For example, political leaders who have been in politics for a long time will always show this trait. This gives them the ability to present themselves as worthy candidates despite some apparent limitations like age.

Whereas many young politicians may get into politics and capture the minds of many people, these older politicians will have a way of somehow going through a “re-birth” to maintain their public appeal.

Another area of leadership that makes flexibility crucial is partnerships.

As much as leaders are great, have the visions and can do a lot of work by themselves, they still need people to work with.

Having the vision and being followed by people does not mean calling all the shots. In fact, such a perspective to leadership often costs the leader his followers as his influence quickly wanes.

As a leader, people follow you because they believe you have their interests at heart. As such, you should always be open to hear their opinions. As much as you may even be sure that their ideas won’t work, you should be able to listen to them.

In the midst of your followers, you may also have some experts in areas you are not well versed in. These people will give you thoughts and opinions which will help you achieve your goal faster or more easily.

Confidence

At whatever level of leadership and with whatever number of followers, confidence is critical. Without confidence, as a leader you will not be able to express yourself well. This means that you will not be able to prove that you have the solution.

If you are to take up a leadership position, you must have confidence.

Without confidence, a leader will not be able to even stand before an audience to speak yet addressing people is a common requirement. When things get tough, confidence is not only required but becomes necessary to be showcased. Not only in speech but also in action.

Confidence is required in all aspects of leadership. From the pursuit of more knowledge to the need to make decisions when everyone else is afraid.

It is confidence that makes you decide to pursue your goals in the first place. You first become confident that you have the solution then decide to go forth and implement it.

With your confidence, you are then able to rally people together and explain to them the problem and the solution you have. This is where you ask for their support. If lacking confidence, you will not be able to do these things.

Results? You will be frustrated that you have the solution to people’s problems but you cannot tell them about it. More than that, you have this burning desire inside you pushing you to follow your dreams but you are not confident enough to do it.

Integrity

Being a leader does not mean that you can do anything you want with no-one asking you questions. On the contrary, it means that you should only do what is right. Whether you are alone or in the presence of others.

Integrity has two main aspects to it:

  • Honesty – you have to speak the truth and act accordingly at all times. Speaking the truth means being very clear with your words and acting in line with them. This is to avoid being labeled a fraud or someone who is manipulating others for some selfish interest. Honesty must come from your heart as this is the only way to guarantee that your actions will follow through. In the absence of honesty, you have lies. When discovered to be a liar, you lose both your credibility and much of what you have worked for so far.
  • Accountability – being a leader does not give you the monopoly of control over everything. You have to be answerable to some people. Although this may seem a bit limiting, it is actually for your good because it makes you responsible.

For example, as a leader, you may be given to making quick decisions which at times are not well thought out. These actions may very well bring in benefits. But since there are people who have invested in you by giving their support, they need to be comfortable with how things are progressing.

As such, you may have to update them on critical situations before making a decision, share the minutes of crucial meetings and even be open to audits.

You will realize the importance of accountability when an issue comes up and the people you are accountable to give evidence that you are an upright person. One who can be trusted because you do things openly.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions as well as those of others. This is very important because people mainly interact from an emotional perspective and not necessarily an intellectual one.

For example, when a leader in a company gets information that employees are on a go-slow, he knows that this can have a big impact in the company’s profitability. He needs to deal with the problem quickly and effectively.

He finds out from the manager the reason for the go-slow. He knows what to do. He has the solution. But does he go straight into telling the employees what the solution is and implementing it? No.

As much as those employees have brains and can think, what they probably want is not a solution per se. What they want is to know and feel that their needs are being taken care of. Therefore, they want to be listened to and feel understood.

The importance of this is that the leader may not even need to implement anything.

If the employees are angry and are carrying out demonstrations, he needs to first of all recognize that emotions are at work. At this point, he needs to keep his own emotions in check lest the employees interpret his interaction with them as unreasonable and dictatorial.

Only the leader who has emotional intelligence will be able to calm people down when they are angry, motivate them when they are low and encourage them when they are downcast. These are common situations in every leader’s life.

Here’s a video on emotional intelligence and its four dimensions.

STRENGTHS OF THE THEORY

The trait theory of leadership has several strengths which make it worth mentioning every time there is a discussion on leadership theories. These are:

Supports the general idea that leaders are distinctive

This theory does not try to show that anyone can become a leader. Since great leaders achieve goals others can only dream of, they often come across as a somewhat special kind of people.

There will always be a lot of marvel at the abilities which leaders exhibit and their followers always speak well of them. This confirms the generally-accepted premise that leadership is not for everyone.

Supporting this line of thought makes this theory stand well with many people.

It is supported by a lot of research

This theory enjoyed a lot of research and gained widespread acceptance as a result of it.

This is usually the norm with any subject that receives a lot of attention. And in the case of this theory, the various people who devoted time to study it generally agreed on the basics. The only part of it where there were some variations was in the specific traits for leadership.

Provides a benchmark for identifying leaders

Providing specific traits was an obvious win for this trait. It made it possible to pinpoint potential leaders because they had certain traits.

At the same time, although the theory fronts the idea that leaders are born and not made, it was still possible to nurture the traits identified. Also, anyone who felt like they were meant to be leaders could use the traits identified as a sort of yardstick by which to gauge his potential.

WEAKNESSES OF THE THEORY

Nothing under the sun is perfect. As good as the trait theory was, it had its own shortcomings. These are what critics picked on. Below are some of the weaknesses of the trait theory.

  • The list of traits is not exhaustive – whereas the theorists agreed on the basics of the theory, they provided slightly different lists of traits. With some lists being longer than others, this theory has largely been criticized for being too general.
  • All the focus is on the leader – although great leaders have various skills to help them in their roles, situations also determine the level of success a leader achieves. This theory does not factor in situations and so cannot adequately compare between two leaders in different situations. Also, the people being led matter. There are those who are easy to lead while others are difficult. At the same time, the traits are not absolute but relative. The traits can vary in degree and no-one can have 100% of all the traits identified.
  • Leadership training and improvement is impossible – since the theory states that the traits are innate, it becomes impossible to talk of training or helping a leader become better. This wrongly implies that as long as the traits identify a leader, then he is good to go.
  • Some traits are not really innate – some of the traits identified are not actually inborn. For example, self-confidence can be developed. This makes the theory subject to a lot of reasonable and scientific criticism, reducing the extent to which it can be embraced.
  • Traits do not guarantee a leader’s effectiveness – Judge, Piccolo, & Kosalka (2009) concluded that whereas a leader’s traits are openly visible to the followers, they do not offer any assurance that the individual will be an effective leader.

This is true especially when you consider that first of all, no single person possesses all the traits identified. Secondly, when situations change, the current leader may need to utilize some of the traits which he doesn’t have.

SELF-TEST

There is a way to assess whether you are a potential leader. This particular method works by checking your abilities as per the traits identified by this theory.

To ensure you have the right perspective towards your abilities, this test provides a questionnaire to be answered by you and five other people.

The other people are those who know you and could be either friends, family or colleagues at work. You can take it to learn where you stand as far as the leadership traits are concerned.

CONCLUSION

As one of the oldest leadership theories, the trait theory has definitely had its mark on the study of leadership.

The fact that it boasts over a century of research has given it a lot of strength but it still attracted criticism.

This is normal as no single theory can be perfect.

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