Leadership Traits

Everyone's heard a story about someone who stepped up during a crisis and became a leader.  They may have even been referred to as "a natural born leader."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  Leadership traits are not necessarily hereditary; this particular debate goes back to beliefs about nature versus nurture.

Nurture, Nature and Leadership Traits

The Nature or Nurture argument in a leadership setting means this:  Was the person born that way (nature), or did they learn about leadership from someone else (nurture)?  The theories of leadership, as well as the traits of a leader, lean more towards nurture.

Leadership traits are learned from observing the successes and failures of others, or through direct trial and error experiences.  Whether or not a person accepts the responsibility of being a leader is a function of their personality.  The difference is subtle but important.  A person's experience allows them to understand what it takes to be a leader, but whether they express these traits is a personal choice.

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman has written extensively about what makes a person a leader.  In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman divides leadership traits into two broad categories:

  • Self Management Skills, and
  • The Ability to Relate to Others

Within these two broad categories, Goleman goes on to describe five components, or traits, of emotional intelligence that help to make a person into a leader.  Below is a brief summary of Goleman's findings.

Self-Management Skills

This first broad category of traits has to do with the abilities of leaders to "manage" themselves.  The hypothesis here is they must first look inwards, and be in control of themselves, before they can start to lead others.

  • Self-Awareness:  When someone has a deep understanding of themselves, including their strengths and weaknesses, they are said to be self aware.  For example, if an individual knows they don't work well under pressure, they're exhibiting the trait of self awareness.
  • Self-Regulation:  The leadership trait of self regulation leverages self awareness but takes it one step further.  People that exhibit self regulation are able to not only understand their impulsive behaviors, but also control them.
  • Motivation:  Managers oftentimes wonder to themselves: How can I get this worker motivated?  Unfortunately, it's not possible to motivate others.  Motivation comes from within, and is a driving passion that exists inside a person.  The most a leader can do is to create an environment where motivation thrives.  Understanding these nuances is an essential trait for anyone in a leadership role.

The Ability to Relate to Others

The second broad category of leadership traits are those involving the ability to relate to people.  They describe, quite simply, a leader's ability to relate to others.

  • Empathy:  A successful leader must be able to deal effectively with others.  The first step in understanding another person's viewpoint is through the leadership trait of empathy.  This means managers must put themselves in their follower's shoes, and take into account their reaction to the managers' decisions.
  • Social Skills:  Goleman maintains that all of the other leadership traits culminate in this skill.  In this context, social skills are defined as the ability to build rapport with others, and get them to work together towards a common goal.

There isn't a lot of nature in the above leadership traits.  People are not born with good social skills.  They develop them by observing what is acceptable in society, and what is effective.  Not everyone is willing, or able, to accept the role of a leader.  That is where motivation becomes so important.  It's possible to master these leadership traits, but without the right motivation someone's simply a bystander.

Leadership Traits versus Styles

As a reminder, the above traits should not be confused with leadership styles.  These are the characteristics of a person.  The things someone might see in themselves, or in others. This is not to be confused with how to effectively lead others, which has more to do with styles.

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