The trait theory of leadership is one of the oldest theories of leadership that is around today. It is based on one simple concept: that people are born with natural talents that allow them to lead. There are certain personal attributes, which we would call traits, that put people into a natural position of leadership. It can be a combination of their physical characteristics, their personality, and even their core competencies and values.
All of it boils down to one assumption. Traits are something that have an enduring quality to them that remain stable over time, but are still something that comes naturally instead of through skill building.
The Trait Theory of Leadership Isn’t a Full Leadership Theory
This theory of leadership came about as a response to the Great Man theory. The first ideas of leadership were that certain people were just born to lead. Call it fate, God, science, or circumstance, there were people who were born to be leaders and they would be a magnetic draw to those who weren’t born to be leaders.
What the trait theory says is that natural talents and traits are granted to people at birth. People are born with certain leadership skills that allow them to take charge of a situation, but in a one-dimensional way. Most of the research done in this leadership theory was to distinguish what made people leaders and what made people followers.
The initial research turned up something surprising: only a few traits were different when compared to followers. Most of the differences were small. Just tiny variances of intelligence, height, and self-confidence were found. To make matters even more strange, researchers found that physical traits weren’t always a precursor to leadership abilities.
What Are the Traits That Define a Leader?
This brought the trait theory of leadership toward a different type of philosophy. Maybe there would be certain characteristic traits that would make people become better leaders than others. Researchers looked into various traits to see what would make leaders become strong and found that there was a certain level of decisiveness, competence, and people skills involved in the best leaders that others did not have.
Recent approaches to this theory are also looking at behaviors. This is an indicator of a leader’s overall emotional stability. Feelings lead to behaviors and it is the behaviors that lead to thoughts. By studying the common characteristics of leaders and then comparing it to their behaviors, this theory of leadership looks to show how traits can vary from day to day based on numerous physical and emotional factors. Not getting enough sleep at night, for example, could affect the leadership traits for any given day.
Trait leadership theories were the next stepping stone in the development of understanding that humanity has about leadership. As this theory continues to expand, we realize that leadership isn’t just a simple concept that can be explained in 500 words or less. It’s something that is unique to each individual and how they view themselves and their relationships.