A challenge to traditional trait-based leadership styles, as outlined by thought-leader Ralph Stogdill. 

Challenges to Trait Theory

Important research into leadership traits, and among the first to challenge traditional trait-based theory, was the work conducted by Ralph Stogdill.

Stogdill wrote a paper in 1948 (Personal Factors Associated with Leadership: a Survey of the Literature, Journal of Psychology) that cast doubt on trait theory.

I am grateful to James Scouller, an expert coach, thinker, and writer on leadership, for the contribution of most of the technical content on this article, and for the collaboration in editing it and presenting it here. Aside from what follows here, Scouller's expertise in leadership theory is evidenced particularly in his 2011 book "The Three Levels of Leadership", which I commend to you.

Stogdill analysed data and findings from over a hundred leadership-related studies, across the following 27 groups of factors:

  1. Age
  2. Dominance
  3. Height
  4. Initiative, persistence, ambition, desire to excel
  5. Weight  
  6. Physique, energy, health
  7. Responsibility
  8. Appearance
  9. Integrity and conviction
  10. Fluency of speech
  11. Self-confidence
  12. Intelligence
  13. Happiness, sense of humour
  14. Academic results
  15. Emotional stability and control
  16. Knowledge
  17. Social and economic status
  18. Judgement and decision (US-English, judgment)
  19. Social activity and mobility
  20. Insight (self, others, wider environment)
  21. Energy, daring and adventurousness
  22. Originality
  23. Social skills (sociability, tact)
  24. Adaptability
  25. Popularity, prestige
  26. Introversion-Extraversion
  27. Cooperation

Stogdill found there wasn't much agreement on the key traits.

Indeed, it was clear that if all the findings were combined, the list became too long to be useful as a guide for selecting future leaders.

Stogdill's conclusions actually still hold firm today, and show no sign of being undermined in the future.

This extract from Organizational Behaviour (1985), by David Buchanan and Andrzej Huczynski, reflects very well modern thinking about this:

"The problem [in attempting to classify/measure leadership capability] is that research has been unable to identify a common, agreed set of [leadership] attributes. Successful leaders seem to defy classification and measurement from this perspective."

Stogdill was one of the first to point out that a person doesn't become an effective leader just because he or she has certain traits.

He argued that a successful leader's characteristics must be relevant to the demands of the leadership situation - that is, the specific challenges faced and the abilities, hopes, values and concerns of the followers.


Acknowledgements

James Scouller Biography

I am grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and trained in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill". It was published in May 2011. I commend it to you, and his thinking too.

You can learn more about James Scouller's book at three-levels-of-leadership.com.

Details of James Scouller's executive coaching work are at TheScoullerPartnership.co.uk.