Trait Theories

Throughout history, strong leaders – Buddha, Napoleon, Mao, Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan have all been described in terms of their traits For example , when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Great Britain, she was regularly described as confident, iron willed, determined and decisive.

Trait theories of leadership differentiate leaders from non-leaders by focusing on personal qualities and characteristics. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher, South Africa’s nelson Mandela, Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, Apple cofounder Steve jobs former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and American Express chairman Ken Chenault are recognized as leaders and described in terms such as charismatic, enthusiastic, and courageous the search for personality social, physical or intellectual attributes that would describe leaders and differentiate them from non-leaders goes back to the earliest stages of leadership research.

Research efforts at isolating leadership traits resulted in a number of dead ends. For instance, a review in the late 1960s of 20 different studies identified nearly 80 leadership traits but, only 4 of these traits were common to 4 or more of the investigations. By the 1990s, after numerous studies and analyses, about the best thing that could be said was that most leaders are not like other people but the particular traits that were isolated varied a great deal from review to review. It was a pretty confusing state of affairs.

A breakthrough, of sorts, came when researchers began organizing traits around the Big Five personality framework. What became clear was that most of the dozens of traits that emerged in various leadership reviews could be subsumed under one of the Big Five and that this approach resulted in consistent and strong support for traits as predictors of leadership. For instance, ambition and energy – two common traits of leaders are part of extraversion. Rather than focusing on these two specific traits, it is better to think of them in terms of the more general trait of extraversion.

A comprehensive review of the leadership literature, when organized around the Big Five, has found that extraversion is the most important trait of effective leaders. But results show that extraversion is more strongly related to leader emergence than to leader effectiveness. This is not totally surprising since sociable and dominant people are more likely to assert themselves in group situations. Conscientiousness and openness to experience also showed strong relationships to leadership, though not quite as strong as extraversion. The traits of agreeableness and emotional stability weren’t as strongly correlated with leadership. Overall, it does appear that the trait approach does have something to offer. Leaders who are extraverted (individuals who like being around people and are able to assert themselves), conscientious (individuals who are disciplined and keep commitments they make), ad open (individuals who are creative and flexible) do seem to have an advantage when it comes to leadership, suggesting that good leaders do have key traits in common.

Recent studies are indicating that another trait that may indicate effective leadership is emotional intelligence (EI). Advocates of EI argue that without it, a person can have outstanding training, a highly analytical mind, a compelling vision, and an endless supply of terrific ideas but still not make a great leader. This may be especially true as individuals move up in an organization. But why is EI so critical to effective leadership? A core component of EI is empathy. Empathetic leaders can sense others’ needs, listen to what followers say (and don’t say), and are able to read the reactions of others. As one leader noted, the caring part of empathy especially for the people with whom you work, is what inspires people to stay with a leader when the going gets rough. The mere fact that someone cares is more often than not rewarded with loyalty.

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