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Trait-based leadership

  • Nineteenth century ‘great man’ theories argued that great leaders are born, not made.
  • Trait theory argues certain characteristics and attributes are peculiar to leaders.

Trait-based leadership theories comprise two major schools – the ‘great man’ theories of leadership, that great leaders are born and not made, and trait theory– that certain traits (whether inherited or developed) are preconditions for effective leadership.

‘Great man’ theorists saw history as shaped by the leadership of great men (Bass & Bass, 2008). Key writers include Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton. Carlyle's 1840 lecture series and subsequent essay On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History painted the great man as possessed of divinely given features from which the masses in his proximity profited (Carlyle, 1841), while Galton studied the hereditary background of great men to determine ‘whether and in what degree natural ability was hereditarily transmitted’ to the extent that he was able to identify the probability of an eminent person having eminent relatives (Galton, 1869). The lasting impact of great man or hero leadership can still be observed over a century later, where responsibility for having the answer to some of the world's most complex problems are placed on the shoulders of individuals, such as presidents and prime ministers and CEOs.

Subsequent to the ‘great man’ theorists, researchers from the early to mid-twentieth century focussed on traits of personality and character to explain leadership and sought to identify those characteristics peculiar to leaders. Bird's 1940 list of 79 relevant traits, taken from 20 psychologically oriented studies demonstrates the extent to which traits were considered quantifiable and predictable (Bass & Bass, 2008). Intelligence, drive, integrity and sociability were central to the lists of almost all the researchers studying trait leadership (Khan, 2013).

Criticisms and challenges

While ‘great man’ theories were criticised for their lack of scientific basis in the nineteenth century, the examination of traits individually and in combination did not fall into general disfavour until the middle of the twentieth century. Stogdill's 1948 critique reviewing 128 published studies on the traits and characteristics of leaders contributed to this. Paving the way for later researchers, Stogdill concluded that the qualities, characteristics, and skills required of a leader are determined to a large extent by the demands of the situation and that ‘an adequate analysis of leadership involves a study not only of leaders but also of situations’ (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 95).

Stogdill also touched on the relevance of followers to a leader's emergence and effectiveness, concluding that ‘a person does not become a leader by virtue of some combination of traits; but the pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics, activities, and goals of the followers’. The connection between leaders and their followers would also form part of later thinking.

Further reading

Thomas Carlyle (1841). On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History.

R M Stogdill (1948). ‘Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature’, The Journal of Psychology, 25: 35-71.