Trait Theory of Leadership

1. Introduction

The Trait theory of leadership as the name indicates is based on traits or characteristics of leaders that make them successful in their leading role. It is viewed as the first modern theory of leadership concept and came into existence in the late 20th century. Trait theory is also termed as the Dispositional theory in psychology which is meant to discover the personality of people. The main aim of researchers of this theory was measuring traits of people related to the pattern of behavior, emotions, etc.

Trait theory is an extension of the Great Man theory of leadership which states that leaders are born, not made. Trait theory agrees upon the same and specifies different personality traits of leaders that distinguish them from non-leaders. Like the Great man theory, it also states that leaders cannot be developed and they have inherited characteristics to become successful leaders. This theory explains those traits or characteristics in detail. The theory also differentiates between leaders and subordinates by assuming that an individual having a leadership role would have a few more traits than their subordinates. Leaders can be more confident, extrovert, charming, etc.

2. History

As stated above, Trait theory is derived from the Great Man theory of leadership which was identified by Thomas Carlyle. According to Carlyle leaders possess leadership qualities by birth only and they cannot be trained for these qualities. This concept laid the foundation for researchers to research these inherent traits or qualities. Different researchers further worked on this theory like Francis Galton. Galton stated that leadership quality is meant for those who have specific traits that are rigid by birth.

Cowley also stated in 1931 that traits should be part of research in leadership study. In 1948, Ralph Melvin Stogdill also supported Trait theory and did value addition to it. He added further that leadership is based on inherent traits but it also depends on the way a leader interacts with the situation.

3. Assumptions

Different assumptions on which Trait theory of leadership is based are:

  • Individuals have leadership traits by birth.
  • A specific set of traits are responsible for specific behavior pattern.
  • This behavior pattern is irrespective of the situation i.e. doesn’t change according to the situation.

4. Broader perspective of the theory

Trait Theory is an extension of the Great Man Theory. It states that individuals inherit certain qualities and abilities which make them a great leader. According to Trait theory, those individuals born with special characteristics become successful leaders. It helps in identifying different personalities and behavioral characteristics that transform an individual into a great leader. These could be self-confidence, courage, communication skills, etc. It also clears the abilities and personality characteristics of both successful and unsuccessful leaders so that the effectiveness of leadership can be identified.

Once different traits or characteristics are identified, they are used to compare the traits of potential leaders to determine their success or failure possibilities. This theory also believes that leaders having such natural traits can be boosted further to be an effective and great leader. This theory helped in identifying the main characteristics of a leader. According to the theory, the behavior of an individual is determined by his/her certain characteristics or traits. These traits are present in human attitude irrespective of the situation.

Different leadership traits have been identified by different researchers from time to time.

The most common and latest studies states following common leadership traits:

  • Judgment capability: Leaders having intelligence and ability to make choices that lift the team up are great leaders.
  • Willingness and sense of Responsibility: Effective leaders are those who are responsible and accountable for their work. They also admit their mistakes and don’t pass them to someone else.
  • Competency of work: Great leaders are skilled enough to handle their job and set an example for others.
  • Understanding attitude: Successful leaders are those who take their subordinates along with them and help them in fulfilling their tasks. They understand the needs of them and share a caring relationship with their staff.
  • Interpersonal skills: An effective leader has strong interpersonal skills i.e. interacting effectively with their team and seniors.
  • Success-oriented: Strong leaders have a desire and attitude towards the success of themselves and their team. For this, they take care of all aspects to achieve their own and team assigned tasks.
  • Motivational approach: A great leader is the one who motivates and inspires the team.
  • Brave and work commitment: Commitment towards work and goals, courage in handling challenging situations and tasks are the qualities of an impressive leader.
  • Strong determination: Tough situations and hurdles in work require strong determination from a result-oriented leader.
  • Faithful: A leader needs to be trustworthy as the team relies on him/her for their activities and decisions.
  • Decision-maker: An effective leader should be a good decision-maker.
  • Confident: Self-confidence is the key to success. Great leaders are confident in their decisions and boost the confidence of the team as well.
  • Self-assertive: Leaders who can direct their team with assertiveness, simultaneously not being aggressive.
  • Out-of-box thinker and flexible: Great leaders can think the solution to a problem in different ways and are flexible enough to handle things as per the situation.
  • Emotional intelligence: Strong leaders have balanced emotions and they don’t overreact.
  • Innovative: Strong leaders produce innovative ideas to handle things.

5. Practical Implications

The trait theory provides useful aspects of leadership and it is practically applicable in the different organizations irrespective of type and size. It is utilized for self-assessment and one can also compare his/her traits with successful leaders. Mostly these are in the form of a questionnaire for self-analysis. By using the information from Trait theory, managers can access their current position and also they can improve it further in the organization. They can get thorough knowledge of themselves i.e. about their personality and how they will have an impact on others. It also provides them an opportunity to know their strengths, weaknesses and the way to enhance leadership skills. Trait theory has identified different traits required for leadership for specific job types.

The trait theory concept is not only useful for self-assessment but also at the organization level for comparing traits of a leader with using the assessment to look for similar traits in others for a leadership role. Personality assessment tools can be utilized to recruit the right candidates for the organization and to find out the areas where characteristics of employees can be beneficial for the organization. One can do self-assessment and further enhance their skills and fill the gap between traits required for leadership and current traits.

6. Criticism

The trait theory of leadership lacks in providing better and clear results. It is not fit for all situations as different traits identified by different researchers so there is no uniform list. Consideration of other factors that affect leadership is also missing. Also, the comparative analysis of traits and their importance is not covered under this theory. It couldn’t justify the reasons why some people having different traits as per the theory; were not effective leaders and why some people who were effective leaders despite being rigid, narrow-minded. Measuring traits and tests to measure them is also not present. Trait theory is also criticized for traits not being change according to time.

7. Significance

Despite criticism, Trait theory has different advantages. It provides useful information on leadership. Different researchers have authenticated the concept of this theory and also applicable in all types of companies at different levels. It also acts as a benchmark to assess leadership traits. It covers the details of a leader in leadership.

8. Limitations or Disadvantages

Trait Theory of leadership has certain limitations as well. It is not possible to separate specific traits that are always useful in leadership in different situations. It doesn’t clear the relationship between traits and behavior, performance. Traits of a leader alone cannot be responsible for the overall personality. This theory only focuses on leaders and not subordinates. It’s difficult to identify the degree of traits even. Trait theory primary focuses on personal traits and ignores situational and environmental factors. Based on the Great man theory of leadership it also considers that leaders are born and cannot be developed. There are no uniform leadership traits.

9. Conclusion

The Trait theory of leadership provided insights into the research of leadership aspects like leaders have leadership qualities by birth or these qualities can be developed over time. Leadership is an art and it also requires a specific skill set. Motivation and development are required to good leaders even having leadership qualities by birth. Like leaders can be trained for self-confidence and knowledge of work. Traits specified by researchers in Trait theory can be found in different leaders but situations and behavior also play an important role in giving direction to leadership. Good leadership quality also requires the way leadership traits and situations interact in which a leader possesses leadership skills.

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