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What is Trait-Based Leadership?

Trait 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 organisational 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 common character traits. We could otherwise regard this as a sort of personality profile of an effective leader. 

What is a Trait?

The word 'trait' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "... a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically belonging to a person ..."

  • A trait is, therefore, a characteristic or quality of human behaviour. We might also consider traits to be aspects of attitude or personality.
  • Human beings possess very many personality traits, in infinite combinations.

Trait theory attempts to analyse effective combinations of human personality traits, thereby suggesting or identifying a set of human traits that enable a person to lead others effectively.

Are Leadership Skills Innate?

Given that personality traits tend to be quite fixed and unchanging in people, trait-based theory has definitely helped to encourage the perception that leadership ability is innate in leaders - that 'good leaders are born, not made'.

The extension of this notion is that effective leaders cannot be developed or taught.

  • Trait-based theory, by implication, asserts that the best leaders are born to lead. And from a training and development standpoint, trait-based theory also implies that if a person does not possess the 'right' leadership traits, then he or she will not be able to lead effectively, or certainly, will not lead as well as a natural-born leader. 
  • Training and development can foster leadership ability to a degree, but what really matters is possessing the appropriate traits, or personality profile.

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.

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 on their success on a largely pre-destined set of character traits. 

Stogdill and Challengers to Trait-Based Theory of Leadership

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.

  • 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, a 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:

  1. Honest
  2. Forward-thinking
  3. Inspirational
  4. Competent
  5. Fair-minded
  6. Supportive
  7. Broad-minded
  8. Intelligent
  9. Straightforward
  10. Dependable

Leadership Thinking and Societal Development

Interestingly, trait-based leadership theory from the mid-1800s onwards arguably reflected the patterns and practices of the leadership of the times.

Trait-based theory, and especially the idea that leaders were born not made, was not just a theory - it was also partly reflective of how leaders were actually selected, trained, appointed, and regarded:

  • Leaders rarely 'rose through the ranks' as they generally can do now in modern times.
  • Organisations and groups which needed leading were extremely slow to change, by today's standards. Tradition and convention were extremely powerful features of all organised work and governing systems.
  • The economy, society, industry, work and life itself, were all far less dynamic and fluid than nowadays, or even the mid-1900s. Social mobility and the class system were far more rigid than they were to become a century later.
  • Very many leaders were born into privilege and positions of authority - especially in politics, the military, and to a great extent in the industry too. In the 1800s leaders, most leaders were actually born into the role.
    • If potentially brilliant leaders existed elsewhere, they had little chance to emerge and lead, compared with opportunities that grew later and which exist today.
  • Women, notably, were effectively barred from any sort of leadership, by virtue of their suppression practically everywhere until the early/mid-1900s.

It is no wonder, therefore, quite aside from the academic thinking of the times, that the validity of trait-based theory was not scrutinised until much later.

Summary and Conclusion

The most helpful conclusion from all this is probably that:

  1. Distinctive traits certainly arise in the profiles of effective leaders, and in the ways that followers believe they should be led.
  2. However, crucially a reliable and definitive list of leadership 'traits' has yet to be established and agreed upon by researchers and thinkers on leadership, and there are no signs that this will happen.
  3. Traits can perhaps define effective leadership for a given situation, but traits alone do not adequately explain what effective leadership is, nor how it can be developed.
  4. A traits-based approach can certainly assist in identifying future leaders, and in the leadership development process, however, traits are just a part of the profile and behaviour of an effective leader. To understand and measure leadership more fully we must broaden leadership criteria to include other factors beyond traits.

Extending this point, James Scouller suggests constructively that:

  • "Even though researchers cannot agree on a shortlist of key traits, we nevertheless do see distinctive intangible qualities in the profiles of effective leaders; qualities that make leaders attractive to their followers...
  • ...This invites the conclusion that although distinctive character traits are in the 'make-up' of the best leaders, there is no single set of winning traits. Therefore, it seems the best leaders have a definite but unpredictable uniqueness about them - what some people refer to as 'leadership presence'..."

References and Further Reading

  • 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 2000. ISBN 9781852526818
  • Stogdill, Ralph M. Personal Factors Associated With Leadership: A Survey Of The Literature . The Journal of Psychology 25.1 (1948): 35-71. Web.


James Scouller Biography

We are 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 training 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" which was published in May 2011.