The Great Person & 
Trait Theories of Leadership

"Great leaders are born, not made"

Although not really a theory, one of the first ways of conceiving of leadership was the idea that it was an inborn ability-- and all you had to do was to look at Royal families and other forms of authority lineage in various societies and see how authority was passed down. Supporting these assertions at the time were the beliefs that many leaders, especially monarchs, were deified (god-like). Even Aristotle suggested that "some men are born to lead, and others to be led." European monarchies passed on their authority and leadership by this means, often involving intermarriage among an elite ruling class. There was no problem so long as an heir existed-- or so long as there was no revolution.

There were even some early scientific efforts at exploring whether the great person was justified. Galton's 1869 study of heritary backgrounds of great men showed mixed results. Wood's 1913 study of leaders in 14 nations over 5-10 centuries found that the quality of the reign was related to the monarch's abilities. With growing interest in Darwinian theory, Wiggam (1936) proposed the "survival of the fittest" and intermarriage of "brighter" (educated) people among the upper classes produced better leaders.

The problem with the great person approach was that not all inherited leaders were capable. In other cases, their leadership was due to charisma or halo effect, not real skill. But while such people held those positions of authority, were they really "good" or effective leaders? Perhaps it wasn't just being born into such a position, but it was the traits one possessed. Thus, the Great Person theory was modified into the Trait theory of leadership-- traits being certain inborn characteristics that ensured leader potential.

After 40 years of research it is clear that leadership is more than a combination of traits. However, some traits may be relevant but alone do not account for the effectiveness of leadership. Several studies have found groups of characteristics:

Many of these have been resolved into three factors:
Correlate high with leadership
Correlate low with leadership
  • originality
  • popularity
  • sociability
  • judgement
  • aggressiveness (assertiveness)
  • humor
  • desire to excel
  • cooperativeness
  • liveliness
  • athletic ability
  • age
  • height
  • weight
  • physique
  • energy
  • appearance
  • dominance
  • mood control

Some problems with the trait approach:

Related to the trait approach is the study of certain behaviors and how they are related to being selected as a leader-- the behavioral approach. In this approach we consider what kinds of behavior is more likely of leaders, and how can they behave toward others that will move them toward being selected as leaders (see leader behaviors below).

Study questions:

Links Example of Eysenck's approach to personality typing based on two-factors of traits: Notice how he used the Introversion-extraversion dimension juxtaposed with personal adjustment. This model was developed into the Maudsley Personality Inventory used for both clinical and hiring purposes for many years.