Trait Theory of Leadership

Perhaps one of the oldest attempts to describe, and identify, potential leaders involves the trait theory of leadership.  By examining the traits exhibited by past and present leaders, as well as their accomplishments, these theoretical models would attempt to predict the future success of an individual.

In this article, we're going to review the trait model of leadership.  We'll start that discussion by summarizing the history of this approach.  Then we'll examine the basics of the trait theory, and how they differ from competing theories such as the Situational Leadership™ model.

Trait Theory

Today's scholars believe the Trait Theory traces its roots back to Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius, published back in 1869.  In that publication, Galton hypothesized two important notions concerning leadership:

  • It's a unique ability that is possessed by certain extraordinary individuals, and their opinions and decisions are capable of bringing about radical changes.
  • These unique attributes are part of their genetic makeup.  That is to say, leadership is hereditary.

Galton's work would support the idea there are "natural born leaders."  The practical implications to the scientific community studying leadership would eventually result in the discrediting of this early trait theory.  If the leader possesses unique qualities, that could only be inherited, then attempting to teach individuals how to become better leaders is futile.

Revival of Trait Theory

In the early 1980's, improvements in statistical research methods led to the revival of this theory.  New ways to examine data indicated that as individuals emerged as leaders, they did exhibit certain characteristics.  Studies suggested these characteristics included:

  • Motivation:  the driving force and energy required to achieve what might be a difficult goal.
  • Oral Communication:  the ability to communicate effectively through speeches, presentations, debates, and discussions.
  • Honesty / Integrity:  working in a consistently ethical manner, as well as being truthful in communications.
  • Self-Confidence:  being self assured in one's ability and personal judgment.
  • Creativity:  the ability to produce something that is new.
  • Intelligence:  the capability to engage in abstract thought, reasoning, and problems solving.  Possessing the qualities of emotional intelligence when dealing with others.

Trait Theory and Situational Leadership

In his publication Trait-Based Perspectives of Leadership, Stephen J. Zaccaro suggests a close relationship between trait theory and conditional leadership.  He believes the choice of a theory's model is not mutually exclusive; rather the trait theory supports conditional leadership.  That is to say, to be successful in a given situation, the leader will need to possess a specified set of characteristics.  In the same way, the characteristics that an individual possesses can determine if that individual has the capability to emerge as a leader in a given situation.

Modern Trait Theory

In Zaccaro's model, he maps out both the criteria as well as the attributes of a leader.  He believes that both the process of becoming a leader, and the attributes required to become one, are influenced by the operating environment.

Zaccaro believes leaders go through a developmental process.  The three steps in that process include emerging as a leader, demonstrating effectiveness, and advancement / promotion.

He also believes leadership effectiveness is based on both proximal and distal attributes.  These are behaviors that apply directly to the problem at hand (proximal) as well as those that are not applied directly to a problem, but are still important to the success of the leader (distal).

Examples of proximal attributes include qualities such as the ability to solve problems, motivation, expertise, and knowledge.  While examples of distal attributes include qualities such as intellectual capacity, emotional intelligence, and self-confidence.


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