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:
- intelligence (but not too much), scholarship
- initiative, independence, inventiveness (correlated with age, drops after age 40)
- self assurance, confidence, aspiration, perceived occupational level
- "helicopter factor" (being able to hover above and reflect on self and team), objectivity
- demographic characteristics: good health, above or below average height, upper SES
- Enthusiasm, sociability, integrity, courage, imagination, decisiveness, determination, energy
- Sociability: dependable, responsible, active, socially participate, cooperative, popular
- Motivation: show initiative and persistence
- Cognitive ability: intelligent, scholarly, insightful, verbal, adaptable
Correlate high with leadership Correlate low with leadership
- aggressiveness (assertiveness)
- desire to excel
- athletic ability
- 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).
- many of these traits are relatively abstract-- how they are defined may refer to different behaviors
- they may be too abstract to be adequately measured
- they may overlap in meaning making them difficult to distinguish or apply
- hundreds (if not thousands) of traits have been identified-- it's not possible for a leader to have them all
- there are too many exceptions to the rule-- some people don't have these traits but are successful leaders
- some traits are actually opposites of each other
- the trait approach does not view personality asn an integrated whole, but as a collection of features or behaviors.
- what may be a useful trait in one setting or culture may not be useful in another
- refering to traits implies relatively fixed or stable qualities, and does not consider how well they are developed, adapted and used
- reduced to a minimum, traits may be necessary but not sufficient conditions for leadership
- the trait approach does not consider the role of followers or situational conditions; too much weight is placed on the leader
- Think back about the previous assignment in which we identified several "good" and "poor" leaders. What were their characteristics (traits) that led to our conclusions?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trait approach?
- How is it still used? Why is it prominent?
- If some leaders truly are distinguished by their traits, what is the problem with the trait approach?
- Using the behavioral approach, assume you are advising a political candidate (on campus or public life) on leadership behaviors. What behaviors would you encourage and discourage to present a "leader image." What are the ethical issues of this approach?
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.
- Trait approach-- overview and listing of traits
- Leader behaviors-- those for and against being selected as leader
- Ways to identify a promising person--
- Frontline links to trait description and rankings of presidents--