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What is Kouzes and Posner's Trait Theory of Leadership?

Despite the trait-based approach falling largely out of favour, leadership trait theory featured strongly in the best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, based on their research from 1983-87.

The authors initially surveyed 630 managers about their positive leadership experiences, augmented by 42 in-depth interviews. From this, they identified a number of key leadership traits.

Below are Kouzes and Posner's suggested ten primary or key leadership traits (sought by followers).

Kouzes and Posner's Top Ten Leadership Traits

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

It is important to see the difference between classical leadership traits theory and Kouzes and Posner's work. They were not analysing the actual traits of effective leaders - which is the thrust of traditional traits theory. 

  • Instead, they asked people what they wanted in their leaders. In other words, they were compiling a profile of the ideal leader. Classical leadership traits theory is different - it aims to explain the common traits of real-life leaders.

Implications of Kouzes and Posner's Model

Kouzes and Posner went on to build more data and sophistication to support their ideas, establishing their 'Leadership Challenge Model' and a leadership development program/product, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.

In doing so, Kouzes and Posner's ideas shifted away from pure trait theory into the 'functional leadership' category of leadership models.

The popular success of Kouzes and Posner's early trait-based thinking illustrates the appeal of trait theory, in part at least due to its simplicity, and resulting ease of interpretation, application and transferability.

Importantly, despite this, there remains no wide agreement on the validity of trait theory as a means of wholly defining, measuring or predicting effective leadership. Kouzes and Posner's shift towards greater sophistication in modelling leadership is further evidence of this.


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.