The search for the characteristics or traits of leaders has existed for centuries. History’s greatest philosophical writings from Plato’s Republic to Plutarch’s Lives have explored the question of “What qualities distinguish an individual as a leader?” Underlying this search was the early recognition of the importance of leadership and the assumption that leadership is rooted in the characteristics that certain individuals possess. So it is natural that the first systematic attempt t study leadership researched the traits of leaders. The theories that began were also dubbed “Great man” theories since early research focused on the innate qualities of historical leaders such as Lincoln, Napoleon and Ghandi.
Every trait researcher ultimately had the same aim, do develop a definitive list of the traits of leaders. However, each research inevitably arrived at a different list. There are at least five major trait theories, each listing different necessary traits. Some of the traits that commonly appear on this list are:
- Intelligence: general intellectual ability
- Self-Confidence: certainty of one’s skills and competencies
- Determination: desire to achieve a certain end
- Integrity: honesty and trustworthiness
- Sociability: ability create pleasant interactions with others
Trait theory argues that effective leadership isn’t contingent on the situation or the followers, but rather the level to which leaders have certain characteristics. Not surprisingly trait theory has given birth to a host of trait assessments and selection criteria used by organizations to identify those who demonstrate the potential to become leaders.
The trait approach is not only supported by our intuitive visualization of what make a leader, it is also supported by a century of research and analysis. Using an inventory or traits, aspiring leaders can objectively assess their capability to lead. However, trait theory has also been criticized for itself relative uselessness developing leaders. Recent research also suggests that followers may need different behaviors from leaders at different times. To both of these criticisms, trait theorist would respond: In essence, you either have it or you don’t.