Trait Leadership

Appearance and Reality

When people think of leaders they think back to historical figures and people with authority from their own lives. Many of these people exhibit common mannerisms and appearances. Followers recognize specific patterns of behavior as belonging to leaders, people of power and authority. Individuals with these behaviors are more likely to be perceived as leaders.

We have suggested that managing one’s image to appear like a leader can be done almost independently of actually leading anybody. Instead we would like to set aside appearances and focus on what makes a leader effective. We will no longer focus on what they look like or how than can manipulate how they are perceived. We will dig deeper to ask what leaders do, what they should do and who they are. 

Beyond Appearances

So, appearances aside, what is leadership? Leadership is the ability to guide, support and inspire a group of people toward achieving a common goal. This is more specific than management, the coordination of resources in an organization.

Actual leadership and its ability to make an organization more effective has been thoroughly studied as a process. This process involves leaders who exhibit traits and the behaviors they perform. Early trait leadership theories supposed that a person either is or is not a leader based on who they are and that leadership is not a set of behaviors. The origins of this perspective can be seen in the “great man” theory of history proposed by Thomas Carlye in 1849. However, the concept of trait leadership has become less popular since the 1950s. Trait leadership was challenged largely because it does not explain how the same person will be more or less of a leader in different situations and during different times. 

Are Effective Leaders Born or Made?

There is some debate about how our personality traits impact how effective we are as leaders. That is, is leadership who you are or is it what you do? If leaders are born, is there a point to even trying to be a more effective leader?

As of this writing, social scientists continue to debate the validity of the trait theory of leadership. At this point, few argue that personal attributes are not helpful in predicting one’s effectiveness as a leader; instead, they argue how much they matter.

Research that compared identical and fraternal twins found that genetics explain 30% of the variance in occupying a leadership position.* This means that rising to a leadership position is partly, though not mostly, associated with genetics.

Leadership style also appears to be linked to personality. Psychology has highlighted the following “big 5” personality traits as substantially describing human personality. They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Of these five personality traits, extraversion and agreeableness were found to be predictive of transformational leadership.** Extraversion was found to be broadly useful in predictive charismatic leadership,*** which is a component of transformational leadership.

Empirically, each of the big 5 traits is roughly half determined by environment and half determined by heredity.**** You could be born exhibiting these personality traits as part of your natural disposition. On the other hand, a person’s big 5 personality dimensions result as part of their life experience. Thus, they are both trait-like and state-like.

All in all, leaders are both born AND made.

Practical Importance

The study of trait leadership provides lessons for aspiring leaders and organizations that are recruiting managers.

First, the personality traits of extraversion and agreeableness can be used to partially predict who will make an effective leader. However, they do not predict most of the differences in leadership outcomes. Organizations could use these factors as part of a checklist for recruiting new managers, but they should not use personality traits only. Similarly, leaders should make efforts to be more extraverted and agreeable, but these changes should not take priority over other work efforts.

Second, it appears that leadership can be developed in the way that you can develop basic skills to become proficient at a sport. Leadership may incorporate personality traits, which can be partially cultivated. More importantly, leadership success is only partially a result of genetics or personality, suggesting that most leadership effectiveness is a consequence of behaviors. Everyone can study and emulate good leadership behaviors.

Trait Leadership561Trait Leadership