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What is Carlyle and Galton's Trait Theory of Leadership?

Notable trait-based theorists are Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) and Francis Galton (1822-1911).

Their ideas, published in the mid-1800s, did much to establish and reinforce popular support for trait-based leadership thinking then and for many years afterwards. 

Trait theory can be traced to Francis Galton's (cousin of Charles Darwin) infamous work, Hereditary Genius, published in 1869. In this book - most well known as being the foundations of eugenics - Galton hypothesised two important notions with regard to leadership:

  1. That it's a unique ability, possessed by certain extraordinary individuals, and their opinions and decisions are capable of bringing about radical changes.
  2. These unique attributes are part of their genetic makeup; therefore, leadership is hereditary.

Galton and Carlyle both suggested that some people were "natural born leaders", inheriting the talents required to lead groups of individuals.

  • The general acceptance of trait-based leadership theory remained virtually unchallenged for around a hundred years when in the mid-20th century more modern ways of researching leadership started uncovered inconsistencies in the trait-based ideas. However, new thinkers during the early 1980s led to a revival and a new form of Trait Theory


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to 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.