Understanding the Trait Theory of Leadership

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The trait theory of leadership focuses on identifying different personality traits and characteristics that are linked to successful leadership across a variety of situations. This line of research emerged as one of the earliest types of investigations into the nature of effective leadership and is tied to the "great man" theory of leadership first proposed by Thomas Carlyle in the mid-1800s.

Thomas Carlyle and the Trait Theory of Leadership

According to Carlyle, history is shaped by extraordinary leaders.

This ability to lead was something that people were simply born with, Carlyle believed, and not something that could be developed. Carlyle's ideas inspired early research on leadership, which almost entirely focused on inheritable traits. Some of the implications of the trait theory of leadership are that:

  • Certain traits produce certain patterns of behavior
  • These patterns are consistent across different situations
  • People are born with these leadership traits

"The trait theory of leadership, generally considered the first modern theory of leadership, became popular during the second half of the twentieth century and, despite scholarly criticism, has continued to be popular,” explained authors Shriberg and Shriberg in their 2011 text Practicing Leadership Principles and Applications. “The theory states that certain innate traits are common to leaders. Although the identified traits vary, the most common are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability."


Early studies on leadership focused on the differences between leaders and followers with the assumption that people in leadership positions would display more "leadership traits" than those in subordinate positions. What researchers found, however, was that there were relatively few traits that could be used to distinguish between leaders and followers.

For example, leaders tended to be higher in things such as extroversion, self-confidence, and height, but these differences tended to be small.

There are some obvious problems with the trait approach to leadership. Since advocates of this theory suggested that certain traits were linked to strong leadership, how come every person who exhibits these supposed “leadership traits” does not become a great leader? What about great leaders who do not possess the traits typically linked to leadership? What about the role of situational variables or characteristics of the group?

Important Research on Trait Theory of Leadership

  • 1948 - Ralph Melvin Stogdill's studies suggest that leadership is the result of the interaction between the individual and the social situation and not the result of a predefined set of traits
  • 1974 - Stodgill conducts additional studies which find that both traits and situational variables contribute to leadership
  • 1980s - James M. Kouzes and Barry Z Posner survey more than 1,500 managers and find that the top four traits associated with good leadership are being honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. Kouzes and Posner refer to these four characteristics as "being credible."

    Traits Associated With Leadership

    Even today, books and article tout the various characteristics necessary to become a great leader. Different researchers have conducted studies and research reviews linking a variety of different traits with effective leadership. For example, Stogdill's 1974 review of leadership traits identified qualities that included:

    One 1989 study suggested that the following traits can be linked to successful leadership, regardless of the situation:

    • Task competence
    • Physical vitality
    • Intelligence
    • Strong skills for dealing with people
    • An ability to motivate others
    • Decisiveness
    • Self-confidence
    • Assertiveness
    • Flexibility
    • Need for achievement
    • Courage
    • Trustworthiness
    • Understanding the needs of others

    “One of the concerns about such lists is that the attributes typically associated with successful leaders are often perceived as “male” traits. Reportedly, when men and women are asked about the other gender’s characteristics and leadership qualities, significant patterns emerge, with both men and women tending to see successful leaders as male,” suggested John W. Fleenor in a 2006 article published in the Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

    More recently, many researchers have focused on a contingency approach to leadership which posits that people who possess certain traits can be more effective in some leadership situations and less so in others.

    While research has suggested that certain traits can sometimes be associated with strong leadership, Lussier and Achua (2012) note that no universal list has emerged that identifies the traits that all great leaders possess or that will guarantee leadership success in all situations.


    Fleenor, J. W. (2006). Trait approach to leadership. Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. SAGE Publications.

    Gardner. J. W. (1989). On leadership. New York: Free Press.

    Lussier, R. & Achua, C. (2012). Leadership: Theory, application, & skill development. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

    Shriberg, A. & Shriberg, D. (2011). Practicing leadership principles and applications. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

    Stogdill, R. M. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press.

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