Trait Theory

There are a lot of theories regarding leadership.

One of the oldest, the trait perspective, examines the traits or characteristics of individuals to predict the likelihood that they will become leaders. Thes types of theories are called Trait Theories.

We will cover the original trait leadership theory, as well as an updated approach, and then briefly cover a few other theories that are grounded in the trade perspective.

Let’s start with the oldest explanation of the trait theory of leadership, which dates back to the 1800s.

Multiple scholars have been credited with the theory, in particular Francis Galton, an Englishman during the Victorian era, and Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, also from the Victorian era, both of whom have way too many credentials for me to list here.

Now there’s a reason to mention these scholars, which I’ll get around to in a moment. Both theories operate under the assumption that leadership comes from the personal qualities of the leader. And those qualities are present at birth.

Carlyle called his theory, the Great Man Theory, he analysed successful leaders of his time to determine which traits they possessed and concluded that leaders are born not made. If you didn’t have those traits, you would never be a leader.

Galton’s claim was similar. In his book Hereditary Genius, he proposed that leadership could only be found in a small number of people with specific, unchanging traits. They are born with these traits, they are inherited, or part of their genetic makeup. If you were not one of the lucky few, you were out of luck, because these traits could not be developed.

What traits would they have been referring to? Think back to the 1800s when these men were around, and you can probably come up with them.

Physical traits of leaders at that time were that they tended to be tall, of ideal weight, and attractive (or at least not unattractive). You’ll probably notice that male is not on the list. Not a surprise considering that it was the Victorian era when women didn’t even have the right to vote, so it was likely assumed and not worthy of listing. Remember that Carlyle called his theory the Great Man approach. Notice also that ethnicities specifically white wasn’t on the list. Carlyle and Galton were from Scotland and England. So again, it was likely assumed that effective leaders were white.

Effective leaders shared communication traits, like being talkative, expressing confidence motivated, knowledgeable, punctual, adaptable, and good listeners.

And they shared some psychological traits, such as having a high need to influence others and being friendly.

There are several problems with this approach and it lost favour in the mid 20th century. This approach ensured that we would get the same type of people as leaders. It also ensured that people who didn’t share these characteristics would not be considered as leaders. Even though part of this theory has been questioned, such as the physical trait criterion, you can likely see some traces of it in the viability of many of our political candidates.

That brings us to a more modern-day approach to the trait theory, as proposed by Stephen Zaccaro of George Mason University. Let me preface this by saying there is much more to this theory than I will cover and I’m going to focus on the traits part of his approach. He also includes an aspect that he calls ‘Leadership Criteria’, which includes the operating environment of the leader and the leader processes, which contribute to the leader’s emergence, effectiveness, and advancement and promotion.

His main argument is that a leader’s attributes influence how the leader performs, but we’ll focus on the first two sections of his model, the distal and proximal attributes. Both of these terms are related to anatomy.

Proximal are those things that are closer to the torso, or in the case of this theory, closer to the problem at hand. Distal are those things that are still part of the body, but are further away from the torso, or further away from the problem, but still related. Other descriptors are of distal being disposition, or trait-like and proximal as more malleable, less of a trait and more of a state.

Let’s start with distal those attributes that are the traits that a person brings to the situation at hand. Zaccaro broke these down into three categories; cognitive abilities, personality and motives and values. Cognitive abilities are where your brain does your intellectual capacity and your creativity. Personality sometimes called dispositional includes extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, emotional adjustment, honesty and integrity and charisma. Motives and values relate to the motivation to achieve and the need for power. These combined make the core of distal attributes

Moving to proximal attributes, those attributes that apply to the actual situation being addressed or the skills that someone can use in a leadership situation. Zaccaro broke these down into three categories as well.

Social appraisal skills, sometimes shortened to just social skills include communication skills, both oral and written, and interpersonal skills. Problem-solving skills include a general ability to think through and solve problems and decision-making skills. Expertise/tacit knowledge is made up of technical knowledge and management skills (tacit means understood without being stated), which in this case means someone may not have been trained in these areas, but has an instinctual knowledge of them. Again, just as in the case of distal attributes, the combination of these three contribute to the core of proximal attributes.

So Zaccaro suggests that it is the combined influence of these traits that contribute to effective leadership and that they are significant precursors of leader effectiveness. Further, he suggests that these traits allow people the ability to adjust their leadership styles to different situations.

Finally, let’s briefly look at two traits that have garnered their own perspectives; charismatic and Machiavellian.

Charisma is defined as a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Even Zaccaro included charisma as part of the distal attribute of personality. Charismatic leadership is leadership where people follow those who are charming and positive – you just feel good around them. This is a little different from a type of leader who may also have charisma – transformational leaders. While transformational leaders may also be charming, positive and electric, they go beyond just charisma to create a vision, stimulate the intellect, consider moral ethics and so on. As the name says they transform people and are inspirational. What’s the difference? First surprising as it may seem, the term charismatic leadership has a negative connotation – the cliche all flash but no substance comes to mind. Also, negative or unethical motives are often ascribed to charismatic leaders. They are considered to be narcissistic, to have a lack of morals and grounded in emotion rather than reason. Transformational leaders are viewed more positively as they appeal to intellect and reasoning, and use their persuasion and charisma for what some call more ethical or moral purposes.

The flip side of this is a Machiavellian leader. The name comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, who in the 1500s wrote The Prince, a political treatise with a general theme that you’ve probably heard before – the ends justify the means. In this treatise, he argued that the goals of princes or those in charge are of supreme importance and thus can justify any means to achieve those goals. Ethics are not considered – it’s more important to get to the end goal. Machiavellian leaders are often described as ruthless and will do anything to get what they want. processing time, what are the traits of a successful leader? Thinking of the leaders today? What would the differences be as compared to the original trait theory?

What similarities do you see between the original trait theory and Zaccaro’s revisions?

Do you think Zaccaro’s revisions to revive trait theory are a viable explanation for who becomes leaders and who does not?

Regardless of whether you agree with the theory or not, there are probably still some skills you can develop that will increase your leadership potential.