Trait Leadership Theory

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What is the Trait Leadership Theory? Meaning.

Trait Leadership Theory is actually a range of theories which share the belief that all leaders are born with, or at least display, certain key personality traits. Since certain traits are associated with proficient leadership, if one could identify people with the correct traits, one would be able to identify good leaders.

Trait theory developed from Great Man Theory of Leadership, as researchers attempted to identify universally applicable characteristics that distinguish leaders from other people.

Assumptions of Trait Theory

  • People are born with inherited traits.

  • Some traits are particularly suited to leadership.

  • People who make good leaders have the right (or sufficient) combination of traits.

However the idea that leadership traits are inborn and unchangeable appears to be incorrect, although many of our dispositions and tendencies are influenced by our personalities and the way we are born.

Examples of Trait Theory

Trait theories date back to the 1920s and 1930s, when theorists started to compile lists of favorable or unfavorable traits. Later examples are:

  • 1947 - The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

  • 1955 - 3-Skill Taxonomy of Katz:

    • Things Leaders. Knowledge about methods, processes, procedures, and techniques for conducting a specialized activity, and the ability to use tools and operate equipment related to that activity.

    • People Leaders. Knowledge about human behavior and interpersonal processes, ability to understand the feelings, attitudes, and motives of others from what they way and do (empathy, social sensitivity), ability to communicate clearly and effectively (speech fluency, persuasiveness), and ability to establish effective and cooperative relationships (tact, diplomacy, knowledge about acceptable social behavior.

    • Ideas Leaders. General analytical ability, logical thinking, proficiency in concept formation and conceptualization of complex and ambiguous relationships, creativity in idea generation and problem solving, ability to analyze events and perceive trends, anticipate changes, and recognize opportunities and potential problems (inductive and deductive reasoning.

  • 1960 - Theory X Theory Y of McGregor

  • 1965 - McClelland's Theory of Needs

  • 1970 - Servant Leadership by Greenleaf

  • 1974 - Stogdill's Review of 163 Leadership Trait Studies, concluding "the endless accumulation of empirical studies has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership"

  • 1982 - The Managerial Competency Traits of Boyatzis:

    1. Efficiency Orientation

    2. Concern with Impact

    3. Proactivity

    4. Self-confidence

    5. Oral presentation skill

    6. Conceptualization

    7. Diagnostic use of Concepts

    8. Use of Socialized Power

    9. Managing Group Process

  • 1983 - McCall and Lombardo identify Four Primary Traits by which leaders could succeed or 'derail':

    1. Emotional stability and composure: Calm, confident and predictable, particularly when under stress.

    2. Admitting error: Owning up to mistakes, rather than putting energy into covering up.

    3. Good interpersonal skills: Able to communicate and persuade others without resort to negative or coercive tactics.

    4. Intellectual breadth: Able to understand a wide range of areas, rather than having a narrow (and narrow-minded) area of expertise.

  • 1989 - Steven Covey publishes his Seven Habits.

Problems with Trait Theory

Unfortunately, the traits reported by all these researchers are often contradictory, and no single trait was consistently identified with good leadership. Some other issues with Trait Theory include:

  • Relativity - Not possible to clarify the relative importance of the various traits.

  • Interaction - Most trait type models are disregarding interaction effects.

  • Universalism - Situational studies have found that traits are not universal; they depend on the situation.

  • Change - Traits transform over time.

  • Cause & Effect. Cause and effect  are unclear. For example: Are leaders ambitious or does being a leader lead to ambition?

  • Cultural Factors. What is effective leadership in the USA may be not as effective in Japan. Compare: Cultural Dimensions Hofstede

  • Theatrics. If we take a theatrics view of leadership, then the leader performs those traits that move the audience.

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Compare with: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator  |  Situational Leadership  |  Contingency Theory  |  Theory X Theory Y  |  Theory of Needs

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