In the early 20th century leadership researchers believed they could discover the traits that made great leaders. At this time the “great man” theory of leadership dominated conversations about “who” was a leader. This theory suggested that men and women (mostly men) were leaders “out of the womb.”
This meant that those truly great leaders had everything they needed within them. Whether blood line, royalty, or family history, these “gifted” human beings needed only time combined with proper care and feeding to bring these nascent traits and royalty to full expression. At the right time, they would step seamlessly and effortlessly into leadership roles and deliver extraordinary results.
The research on traits and leadership took off as we moved deeper into the 20th century. Overall, the research yielded the following conclusion: there is no consistent collection of traits that all leaders share in common.
To date, no “trait algorithm” has been discovered that consistently points to the existence of innate leadership capacity or ability across genders, ages, or cultures. However, what trait research did uncover was a broad list of traits that many leaders “tended” to exhibit (see Kirkpatrick & Lock, 1991; Lord, DeVader, & Alliger, 1986; Mann, 1959; ; Stogdill, 1948, 1974; Zaccaro, Kemp, & Bader, 2004).
Four Key Conclusions:
There are four conclusions that we can make about leadership and traits. First, the great man (or woman) theory of leadership has been completely, and thankfully, debunked. There are no born leaders. There are, however, women and men who possess a unique collection of traits that may posture them to be effective leaders as they mature and grow.
Second, that a collection of traits had been identified that would help support the targeted development of leadership acuity and capacity. In other words, we know where and how to work with people who show leadership potential.
Third, leadership development now becomes much more accessible and available to any person choosing to develop their leadership capabilities. Certainly, key traits identified by the researches mentioned earlier could be an advantage. In practice though, leadership capacity and potential could emerge within anyone who was willing to maximize and leverage existing traits whether or not they were among the traits identified in trait research.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, following a trait approach to leadership development also means that it makes no sense to try to replicate the leadership traits of another leader. The leadership “industry” is obsessed with the successes and methodologies of recognizable and popular leaders.
The subtext in these messages is often, “be like those folks” if you want to find the same success and recognition. However, the reality is that you can only find authentic success and recognition when you develop your own traits rather than trying to develop traits you may not possess. As a leader, you will be most effective when you identify, trust, and build on the traits that you already possess.
Using a Trait Approach to Developing Leadership Capacity:
There are specific actions we can take, using the trait approach, to cultivate our own leadership portfolio. Northouse (2016) has identified five areas that leaders should focus on developing. Building strategies and tactics that will fuel these traits will go a long way in building a competitive leadership portfolio. These areas include:
a. Expand your verbal repertoire and capacity.
b. Sharpen your perceptual awareness. Consciously work to notice what you typically would not see/notice.
c. Examine the contents of your cognitive schemas and begin to make necessary changes in those schemas.
d. Strengthen your reasoning and critical thinking capabilities.
a. Build your confidence around your strengths, competencies and skills.
b. Fuel clarity around your specific contributions to people, processes, and organizations.
c. Identify areas of self-doubt and self-skepticism and close gaps or provide information to eliminate that doubt and skepticism.
a. Take initiative on projects and opportunities to apply your knowledge and experience toward advancing a goal or objective.
b. Generate the disciplin necessary to drive and fuel persistence.
c. Develop a growth mindset that navigates around barriers and obstructions and finds a way forward.
a. Identify and hold to your core values.
b. Focus on keeping your promises and meeting your obligations.
c. Hold and protect the confidence of others.
d. Exercise appropriate levels of transparency and honesty.
a. Be proactive in building social relationships.
b. Be available and accessible to those in and around your network.
c. Be conscious of maintaining and nurturing your people networks.
d. Be someone who encourages, serves, and resources those in your network.
e. Give first before you ever ask for anything.
In addition to focusing on cultivating the “Northouse 5” above, I would recommend taking the Leadership Trait Questionnaire which will provide more detailed and specific information on those traits that can fuel your development as a leader.
Kirkpatrick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: Do traits matter? The Executive, 5, 48-60.
Lord, R.G., DeVader, 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 Psychology, 71, 402-410.
Mann, R. D. (1959). A review of the relationship between personality and performance in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 56, 241-270.
Northhouse, P. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.
Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35-71.
Stogdill, R. M. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press.
Zaccaro, S.J., Kemp, C., & Bader, P. (2004). Leader traits and attributes. In J. Antonakis, A.T. Cianciolo, & R. J. Stenberg (Eds.), The nature of leadership (pp. 101-124). Thousand Oaks, CA; SAGE.