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Trait Based Leadership Theory

By Mahogany L. King

An assignment submitted to the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Economics In partial fulfillment of the requirements For the Course of Management 5670

Webster University 2011


Trait Based Theory |2

Abstract Leadership theories have a long history of trying to identify what makes a good leader. Leadership theories have been created to define effective leadership in areas of employment, school, industry and government. This paper researches one of the oldest and debated theories knows as trait based theory. The trait based theory leads researchers to discuss how genetics, characteristics and attributes determine leadership effectiveness. The basis of the trait based theory is that certain individuals are born with certain characteristics and attributes and others are not. Theorists who are for the trait based theory believe that leaders cannot be made but are born with the exact combination of characteristics that would deem them an effective leader.


Trait Based Theory |3 Leadership is considered to be one of the most controversial topics of discussion in the fields of both psychology and sociology (Derue, Nahrgang, & Wellman, 2011). The controversy of leadership stems from the different perspectives and components that it entails. The term leadership is broad in nature and has various meanings and connotations (Judge, Bono, Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). Because of its broad nature, leadership theories and methods have been created and researched. Included in the spectra of leadership is the theory known as the “trait theory.” The trait method of leadership is based on the characteristics of both good and bad leaders. Research that has been conducted strives to assume the key quality traits needed in order to predict leadership effectiveness. The basis of the trait theory believes that certain individuals are born with certain characteristics and attributes that place them in a better position to lead than those who are born without certain characteristics. Many researchers have categorized certain characteristics that are common in leaders. One of the difficulties in this theory is defining a medium to separate good leaders from bad leaders who possess the same personality and characteristics attributes. The trait based leadership theory evolved during the late 1800’s with Sir Francis Galton’s writing of Heredity Genius (1869). Galton concurred that leadership should be defined on the basis of two specified approaches. The first approach was defined to demonstrate leadership as being displayed by individuals who possessed extraordinary characteristics and influence in the changing of lives and/or society (Zaccaro, 2007). Glaton’s second approach dealt with the idea that leaders are not developed or created over time, but leaders are born leaders. He believes that leaders posses certain traits and characteristics that labels them as a leader even from the onset of birth. As research continued, theorists shunned the trait based theory citing inconsistency and a lack of integration (Derue, Nahrgang, & Wellman, 2011). As other leadership theories were


Trait Based Theory |4 created, researchers were forced to look at certain qualities that effective leaders possessed and begin to reconsider trait theory once again. In spite of this theories ups and downs, key points and flaws, many researchers continue to use this model as a determining factor of good leaders. One major disagreement amongst trait leadership is defining the most effective and beneficial traits. Galton (1869) believed that leadership traits where at the onset of an emerging leader’s life. Others believed that leadership traits were not present at birth, but instead, are produced over time as one develops and matures. According to Zaccaro (2007), leadership traits are defined as, “an integration of characteristics, attributes that is the basis for efficient leadership across a span of situations.” Unlike Galton, Zaccaro’s definition of leader traits consisted of three components. The first component concludes that leader traits should not be defined in remoteness (the number one reason why researchers disregarded this theory). Critics of this theory discovered that researchers had a habit of defining new assumptions of the theory without first proving existing theories as being valid (Lord, De Vader, Alliger, 1986). Zaccaro (2007) believed that leadership should not focus on only one component, but instead should focus on how that component works in regards to other components. While many may possess some of the same personality traits and characteristics, Zaccaro (2007) expressed that a trait alone does not define a true leader because certain traits are common across a broad spectrum. In essence, amongst a group of individuals with the same traits and characteristic, some may stand out as effective leaders and others may not. He believes that when defining a leader, researchers should go one step further to include discovering qualities including intentions, worth, proficiency, value and skills behind a leader’s desire to lead. Finally, Zacarro believes that the third mechanism of defining leadership trait should be consistent in all situations (Zaccaro,


Trait Based Theory |5 2007). In other words, he believed that good leaders thrived at all times not just during certain situations and circumstances. Issues of situational leadership have been a major topic of discussion included in leadership theory (Zaccaro, 2007). While followers of Galton stick to the belief that leadership traits are inherited and present at birth, others take upon a more “realistic� approach. Those who oppose traits being present at a future leader’s birth believe that there are many situational factors that determine a good leader. In this case, it is more likely for one to be more effective and thrive depending on certain situations (Zaccaro, 2007). One is more likely to be effective in areas that he or she is skilled in comparison to areas where they are unskilled. For example, a basketball coach, who is proficient in the sport of basketball, would thrive more at coaching a basketball team compared to coaching a football team. Another component of situational leadership in comparison to trait leadership is the ability for a leader to be consistent across different spectrums. As fore stated, Zacorra believed that leaders are those who lead all the time not just in certain situations. Trait theorists would, however, refute this argument by enforcing the idea that leaders are born leaders and will indeed lead regardless of any situation (Lord, De Vader, Alliger, 1986). A second reason for scholars shunning the trait theory in previous research was likened to a disorganized method of highlighting key attributes of leadership. There are many traits that the human species possess leading to the question, which traits are more important? Studies have been conducted placing emphasis on certain traits including confidence, humbleness, determination, self-assurance, and competence. Lord et al. (1986) concluded in their research of trait leadership that certain traits were more important predictors of good leaders. In fact,


Trait Based Theory |6 research conducted by Judge et al (2002) took a different approach in studying research and personality traits by using a method known as the “Five Factor Model of personality” (2002). Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness makeup the main character attributes of the “Five Factor Theory.” Neuroticism attributes to those who express negative behaviors such as anxiety and stress. Extraversion refers to those who are very social and outgoing and who thrive on excitement and high adrenaline. Open to experience are those who are not afraid of taking risks and discovering new things. Agreeable refers to those who are trustworthy, integral, and is often viewed in the eyes of others as affectionate caregivers. And finally, Conscientiousness refers to the proficiency and moral of an individual (Judge, Bono, Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). Researchers have discovered both positive and negative correlations between the specified traits and leadership effectiveness. On the negative list are neuroticism and agreeableness. Researchers have proven that neuroticism and leadership has a negative correlation (Judge, Bono, Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). In other words, leaders are not those who are more likely to be anxious or stressed during obvious situations. This is not to say that leaders do not experience some cases of stress and/or anxiety, however, it explains that leaders do not allow stress to stop them from leading. Many neurotic individuals are passive, negative, and fearful which are all attributes of a non-leader. Researchers also believe that good leaders are those who are more agreeable (Judge, Bono, Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). However, most leaders are not agreeable and in certain cases are considered to have different views and opinions of other leaders. In this sense, this shows that agreeableness does not have a positive correlation as a predictor of effective leadership. Unlike a consistent finding in neuroticism and agreeableness, the findings of extraversion and leadership effectiveness returned inconclusive (Judge, Bono,


Trait Based Theory |7 Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). It is safe to say that introversion and extroversion does not determine a good leader from a bad leader. What introversion and extroversion does is focus mainly on social factors. While extroverts are deemed as more socialable, so are introverts while in a leadership role. In spite of what studies have proven, researchers believe that extroverts are those who are lively, energetic, and standout in group settings which are predictors of leadership effectiveness. Openness is also proven to be positively related to leadership effectiveness, in that good leaders are those who are able to communicate, articulate and take risks. Conscientious leaders are those who are task oriented and driven to fulfill obligations. Conscientious, along with openness, and extroversion, are all predictors of effective leaders (Judge, Bono, Ilies, Gerhardt, 2002). In an attempt to discover what attracted individuals to certain leaders, Micha Popper (2011) conducted a recent study on followers in isolation of leaders. As stated by one scholar, “followers, not the leader and not the researcher define leadership,� (Popper, 2011). Being perceived as a leader allows he/she to exert great influence in arenas including industry, government, education, and employment (Lord, De Vader, & Alliger, 1986). This influence is however, stemmed from a grouping of certain traits. In contrast to present researchers, earlier theorist such as Galton, Stogdill and others believed that there was a specific set of characteristics and attributes that made one a leader (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman, 2011). In essence, they believed that the same traits would work on both a war ground and in the classroom. Leadership effectiveness is stated to be proven through a combination of different characteristics. Contemporary researchers believe that mixing characteristics and attributes was a better determiner of an effective leader compared to placing emphasis on certain traits only. The mixing of qualities consisted of elements of one’s behavior, skills, cognitive ability and character (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman, 2011).


Trait Based Theory |8 In spite of the back and forth debate about which characteristics are more important, researchers have now included genetics as a major topic of discussion in relation to leadership traits. Theorists are no longer isolating inherited traits from situational factors. Instead, researchers like Bass (2008) stands on the idea that not only are leaders born, but they can also be created. Studies have shown positive correlations between leadership and genetics leading researchers to believe that genetics are predictors of effective leadership. With factors including The Big Five Factor, specific and combined characteristics and genetics, researchers have been tasked to consider if leadership is a direct consequence of nature vs. nurture. The writer believes that regardless if traits are combined or isolated from other attributes, the situational factor will often arise. The situation of a leader is of high importance and should be taken in consideration. It is possible that one could be a leader is certain situations and not others. This is reflection of a person’s expertise, skill, and proficiencies in a certain area that will predict their leadership effectiveness. The writer also agrees with researchers like Galton who highly stand firmly on the grounds that leaders are born. I also believe that there are certain qualities that have been inherited and passed down from generation to generation. However, circumstances including maturation, experience, and training play a huge role in determining leadership effectiveness. I highly believe that leaders will lead at all times, however; leaders may thrive better in certain areas of leadership than others. No one man is an expert in every situation resulting in the idea that leaders are born, but many on the other hand are nurtured.

References Bass, R. (2008). The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and

Managerial Application (4).


Trait Based Theory |9 Derue, S.C., Nahrgang, J.D., Wellman, N. (2011). Trait and behavioral theories of leadership. An integration and meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 64, (7-52). Judge, T.A., Bono, J.E., Ilies, R., Gerhardt, M.W. (2002) Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, (765–780). Lord, R.G., De Vader, C. L., Alliger, G.M. (1986). A meta-analysis of the relation between personality traits and leadership perceptions: An application of validity generalization procedures. Journal of Applied Psycholog, 71, (402-410) Zaccaro, S.J. (2007). Trait-based perspectives of leadership. Journal of American Psychologist, 62, (6-16). Doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.1.6

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