The Trait Theory of Leadership

The trait theory of leadership evolved from suggesting only a select few were born to lead to predicting a leader’s performance based on their personality traits. More recently, experts have combined the theory with broader views of organizational behavior.

By — on / Leadership Skills

The Trait Theory of Leadership

Are great leaders born or made? The question has fascinated scholars for nearly two centuries and spawned many theories.

The trait theory of leadership, which dates to the mid-1800s, originally proposed that only certain people possessed the personality traits required of effective leaders. Although that view has been widely rebutted, management scholars have continued to try to identify personality traits that are compatible with leadership success and to explore how such traits can be developed. Here, we take a closer look at how the trait theory of leadership has evolved over time to help individuals hone their leadership skills and organizations develop effective leaders.

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The Rise, Fall, and Return of the Trait Theory of Leadership

In his “Great Man” theory of 1840, British historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle asserted that world history can be viewed as “the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”  According to Carlyle, all great achievements can be attributed to the work of heroes, or “great men,” such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. This view was disputed by those, such as Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who took a broader view of the forces shaping history.

In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, British polymath Francis Galton, a proponent of eugenics, drew on Carlyle’s Great Man theory to assert that only certain extraordinary individuals possessed the traits required for effective leadership and, moreover, that others could not develop such traits. Subsequent theorists also attributed leadership success to personal traits but abandoned Galton’s view that only a small number of people are fit to lead.

In the 1940s, researchers began to acknowledge other influences on leadership effectiveness besides personality traits, such as characteristics of the organization and its employees, and the broader environment. The trait theory of leadership was widely rejected during this time, and other leadership theories came to the fore, including the contingency theory of leadership, participative leadership theory, charismatic leadership theory, and servant leadership theory.

In the early 2000s, the trait theory of leadership made a comeback, as researchers began to identify personality traits that tend to be associated with leader effectiveness. But rather than reverting to the belief that personality traits alone determine leadership success, many scholars asserted that leader personality was just one ingredient in a stew that makes up the contemporary organization, alongside current events, culture, mission, and many other factors.

Which Traits Matter?

Scholars have identified several personality traits that may correlate with leadership success or failure. In a 2011 study, University of Georgia professor Brian J. Hoffman and his colleagues studied the effect of both dispositional personality traits (such as motivation, energy, dominance, integrity, creativity, and charisma) and more malleable, or proximal, traits (such as interpersonal skills, written communication, managerial skills, and decision making). Dispositional traits tend to be more deeply ingrained and more difficult to change, whereas most of us can adjust our proximal traits more easily, as through education and training.

Hoffman and colleagues found that both the dispositional and proximal traits they studied were strongly correlated with leader effectiveness. However, a research team from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University argues that leadership success or failure cannot be accurately predicted by the trait theory of leadership because of our limited understanding of how personality affects leader effectiveness.

The Role of Personality Tests in Hiring

The trait theory of leadership has been applied to justify the use of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), in hiring. However, many experts believe personality tests should not be used to predict how well someone will perform on the job or whether they are suited for a particular role or career.

Indeed, in a 2021 Forbes article, Sherrie Haynie, senior director of U.S. Professional Services at the Myers-Briggs Company, advises against using the MBTI in the hiring process. According to Haynie, the company has long held the position that the MBTI “shouldn’t be used in hiring, but rather for team-building, conflict management, leadership development, and other non-selective purposes.” In fact, she argues, “in many cases, using a personality assessment for hiring when it wasn’t designed to be used for hiring is unethical (like using the MBTI assessment for hiring).”

Are other personality tests more effective at identifying leadership traits in job candidates? In their research, personality researchers often administer the so-called Big 5 Personality Traits, or 5-Factor Model, which assesses personality on five dimensions: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Might it be a useful tool in hiring?

Some studies have shown that certain Big 5 factor scores correlate with certain outcomes, University of California, Davis, researcher Simine Vazire tells Scientific American—such as conscientiousness with longer life, and extroversion with higher sales for salespeople. “But that doesn’t mean someone with high extroversion will be a better salesperson,” Vazire says, as such correlations could be incidental. She and many personality researchers are thus skeptical of personality tests that purport to predict job performance and generally advise against using them during the hiring process.

Moving beyond the trait theory of leadership, which leadership theories have you found to be most helpful on the job?

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