Trait Theory

What is the Trait Theory of Leadership?

The search for the characteristics or traits of leaders has existed for centuries. History’s greatest philosophical writings from Plato’s Republic to Plutarch’s Lives have explored the question of, “What qualities distinguish an individual as a leader?” Underlying this search was the early recognition of the importance of leadership and the assumption that leadership is rooted in the characteristics that certain individuals possess. So it is natural that the first systematic attempt to study leadership researched the traits of leaders. The theories that began were also dubbed, “Great man” theories since early research focused on the innate qualities of historical leaders such as Lincoln, Napoleon, and Gandhi.

Every trait researcher ultimately had the same aim, to develop a definitive list of the traits of leaders. However, each researcher inevitably arrived at a different list. There are at least five major trait theories, each listing different necessary traits. Some of the traits that commonly appear on this list are:

  • Intelligence: general intellectual ability
  • Self-Confidence: certainty of one’s skills and competencies
  • Determination: desire to achieve a certain end
  • Integrity: honesty and trustworthiness
  • Sociability: ability to create pleasant interactions with others

Trait theory argues that effective leadership isn’t contingent on the situation or the followers, but rather the level to which leaders have certain characteristics. Not surprisingly trait theory has given birth to a host of trait assessments and selection criteria used by organizations to identify those who demonstrate the potential to become leaders.

The trait approach is not only supported by our intuitive visualization of what makes a leader, but it is also supported by a century of research and analysis. Using an inventory or traits, aspiring leaders can objectively assess their capability to lead. However, trait theory has also been criticized for its relative uselessness at developing leaders. Recent research also suggests that followers may need different behaviors from leaders at different times. To both of these criticisms, trait theorist would respond: In essence, you either have it, or you don’t.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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