Trait-Based Leadership

Trait-based leadership – the oldest type of thinking about effective leadership – is defined as integrated patterns of personal characteristics that reflect a range of individual differences and foster consistent leader effectiveness across a variety of group and organizational situations (Zaccaro, Kemp, & Bader, 2004). Basically, ‘Trait-Based’ leadership models focus on identifying the traits of successful leaders.

 Trait-based theoretical models of effective leadership draw on the idea that great leaders have certain character traits with the dated opinion that all successful leaders are born leaders. According to this idea, leaders depend their success on a largely pre-destined set of character traits.

In 1948, Ralph Stogdill analysed data from over 100 leadership related studies and was the first to challenge Trait-based theory. He found there were too many qualities that make up a successful leader.

But David Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski summarised this for today’s modern society with “The problem is that research has been unable to identify a common, agreed set of attributes. Successful leaders seem to defy classification and measurement from this perspective.” Therefore, successful leader’s characteristics must be relevant to the demands of the leadership situation.

In 1987, Kouzes and Posner published the bestselling book ‘The Leadership Challenge’. Surveying 630 managers, they identified the qualities followers looked for in a leader. Below are Kouzes and Posner’s suggested ten primary or key leadership traits:

Honest, Forward-thinking, Inspirational, Competent, Fair-minded, Supportive, Broad-minded, Intelligent, Straightforward and Dependable.

The ideas and implications of trait-based leadership theory – i.e., that effective leadership and potential leaders are determined by a largely pre-destined and unchanging set of character traits – that ‘good leaders are born not made’ – dominated leadership thinking until the mid-20th century.

Carlyle and Galton

Notable trait-based theorists are Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton. Their ideas, published in the mid-1800s, did much to establish and reinforce popular support for trait-based thinking then, and for many years afterwards. They believed that leadership was a trait of extraordinary individuals, they suggested that these traits were entrenched and could not be developed.

In fact the general acceptance of trait-based leadership theory remained virtually unchallenged for around a hundred years, when in the mid-20th century more ways of researching leadership started to uncover some inconsistencies in the trait-based ideas.

Ralph Stogdill

Ralph Stogdill was among the first to challenge traditional trait-based theory. In 1948 Stogdill analysed data and findings from over a hundred leadership-related studies, across 27 groups of factors.

Stogdill was one of the first people to point out that a person doesn’t become an effective leader just because he, or she, holds certain traits. He argued that a successful leader’s characteristics must be relevant to the demands of the leadership situation, this is, the specific challenges faced and the abilities, hopes, values and concerns of the followers.

Stogdill found there wasn’t much agreement on the key traits. Indeed, it was clear that once all the finding were combined, the list became too long to be useful as a guide for selecting future leaders. His conclusions still hold firm today, and show no sign of being undermined in the future.

Kouzes and Posner

James Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed 630 managers about their positive leadership experiences augmented by 42 in-depth interviews.

From this research Kouzes and Posner identified and suggested ten primary, or key, leadership traits sought by followers:

It is important to see the difference between classical leadership traits theory (such as Caryle and Galton and Stogdill) and Kouzes and Posner’s work. They were not analyzing the actual traits of effective leaders, which is the thrust of traditional traits theory. Instead they asked people what they wanted in their leaders. They were developing a ‘profile’. Remember classical leadership traits theory is different as it aims to explain the common traits of real-life leaders.

James Scouller, leadership coach and author, summarises Trait-based Models from a modern stand-point exceptionally well;

“Even though researchers cannot agree on a shortlist of key traits, we nevertheless do see distinctive intangible qualities in the profiles of effective leaders…Therefore, it seems the best leaders have a definite but unpredictable uniqueness about them – what some people refer to as ‘leadership presence’…”

It appears that from extensive research, although there are certainly characteristics that make for great leaders, it is those that carve their own path specific for their own and their organisational needs, which tend to be the most successful.

Buchanan, David A, and Andrzej Huczynski. Organizational Behaviour. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991. Print.

Galton, Francis. (1998). Hereditary Genius. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 1998. Print.

Kouzes, James M, and Barry Z Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987. Print.

Scouller, J. (2011). The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill. Cirencester: Management Books 2000ISBN 9781852526818

Stogdill, Ralph M. Personal Factors Associated With Leadership: A Survey Of The Literature. The Journal of Psychology 25.1 (1948): 35-71. Web.