The trait theory of leadership postulates that leaders are born with several personality characteristics that make them natural leaders. Individuals born with certain traits then engage in specific behaviors that make them leaders.
According to trait theory, being a great leader cannot be learned. There are a set of attributes that great leaders are born with that distinguish them from the rest of the population. Those traits then propel them to greatness.
The personality profile of a natural-born leader includes numerous attributes, such as: adaptability, assertiveness, decisiveness, a high degree of motivation, ability to motivate others, and self-confidence, just to name a few.
Definition of Trait Theory of Leadership
This view of leadership as a set of traits stems from the work of Thomas Carlyle and the great man theory.
At that time, the most famous leaders were either in the military or political figures, traditionally male-dominated fields. In the 21st century we could include many examples of great female leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher and Susan B. Anthony.
Research on trait theory usually involved observing leaders and producing a catalog of their common traits. This led to different researchers producing slightly different profiles and the realization that not all leaders possess all of the same traits.
Today’s approach to leadership is more situational and complex, taking into account the demands of a project and the characteristics of the workers.
Examples of Trait Theory of Leadership
One of the main attributes of a leader described in the trait theory of leadership has to do with the ability to inspire others.
The ability to deliver an uplifting speech that captivates the attention of others and compels them to action is a rare quality.
It is an ability that is comprised of several characteristics often discussed in the trait theory of leadership, including: confidence, charisma, and oral communication. When these attributes come together in a single moment, such as delivering a speech during trying times, it can produce an amazing experience to those in witness.
There are several famous speeches that are often identified as great examples of uplifting and inspiring moments in history. For example, the I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. a classic.
2. Highly Motivated
Achievement motivation is the drive to accomplish tasks and experience a sense of accomplishment. Some individuals are just more intrinsically motivated than others. They possess an inner determination to succeed that compels them to take action and pursue success.
In the face of failure their determination actually becomes stronger. They are persistent and push through failures because they are confident that success will eventually be attained.
According to the trait theory of leadership, leaders are highly ambitious, are willing and capable of exerting a great deal of effort to accomplish their goals, and approach each step on their path to success with energy, passion, and enthusiasm.
3. Adaptability and Flexibility
Being able to change course when circumstances dictate is an essential characteristic of effective leaders.
Any kind of project or endeavor will rarely go exactly as planned. There will always be unanticipated obstacles and even failures along the way to success.
The capacity to recognize when a change is needed and admit that an error has been made are traits that many do not possess. Some leaders find it difficult to acknowledge a mistake and alter their plan.
However, with nearly every example of historical figures that scholars consider examples of great leaders, they all exhibit the ability to adapt and be flexible. They are not so stubborn that they will allow a project to fail just to save their pride. The goal is top priority, not safeguarding one’s ego.
See Also: Best Adaptability Skills for Leaders
4. Emotional Intelligence
Although different scholars use slightly different terms, such as emotional stability, composure, or understanding others, today we could categorize these terms as comprising emotional intelligence.
Capable leaders have a remarkable ability to not over-react in pressing situations. They are simply not easily rattled. Even when a situation may seem dire and all those around are experiencing tremendous emotional strain, the great leader will stay calm and composed.
They are able to keep themselves focused on problem-solving, the bigger picture and position themselves as a guiding force for others to follow. Combined with their other traits, such as interpersonal and communication skills, they are able to overcome tremendous challenges.
Another attribute of true leaders according to trait theory, is their decisiveness. They have an unusual ability to know how to handle each situation exactly as it should be handled. This is especially true in moments of high-stakes where consequences can be detrimental.
While most individuals in those same situations might feel torn between several possible solutions, a great leader seems to know instinctively what to do. They are extremely confident in their decisions and are able to articulate its merits to others in a way that is exceptionally persuasive.
This decisiveness and clear-eyed understanding of the matter instills confidence in the minds of others and compels them to follow.
The ability to persevere is another admirable quality of a great leader. Some projects can be amazingly complex and even go on for years.
There will undoubtedly be many failures and setbacks along the way. This can lead to the team losing motivation, experiencing burnout and some personnel even leaving.
Therefore, perseverance is extremely important. Being able to work through obstacles takes determination and fortitude. There may be times when the team leader realizes that their initial plans were wrong and they must go back to the drawing board. Additional training might be necessary or hiring people from the outside whose opinions are quite different.
There are a multitude of challenges that can occur, so having a leader that can persevere is absolutely essential.
7. Courage and Resolution
Since the early years of trait theory research usually involved studying leaders in the military, it is no surprise that attributes such as courage and resolution would be identified. Military leaders face life-and-death situations with significant consequences.
The sovereignty of entire nations can be at stake. The pressure to surrender, change direction, or negotiate peace when things look dire can be tremendous and come from all sides.
The traits of courage and resolution are exactly what are needed to see one’s commitment to the end. When complete failure and disaster seem imminent, truly great leaders push onward. This takes a level of bravery and confidence that simply don’t exist in most of us.
In order for people to follow, they must have trust in leadership. They must have confidence that what the leader says is truthful. There are many situations when a person in a leadership position might not be completely upfront regarding a situation or project.
Maybe some details are purposely omitted. Perhaps the timeframe is shorter than initially stated or the availability of resources not as plentiful as stated in the beginning. When team members ultimately discover the true state of affairs, they will lose a lot of faith in the leader.
That can be devastating to any project, no matter how large or small. Most people would much rather follow a leader that will tell them how bad things can get from the very beginning as opposed to being misled only to discover the truth later.
We all know when we are talking to an individual with charismatic authority. We can just feel it. They have a presence that is noticeably different from others.
We can sense charisma in the way someone that possesses it communicates. They speak with an expressive tone of voice, have outstanding language skills, and exude confidence without coming across as arrogant or aloof. Their demeanor while speaking is also different. Their posture and mannerisms portray a person that clearly knows what they are talking about.
When we interact with someone with charisma or listen to a speech they give, it just creates a completely different feeling in us. Their words can move people to tears or inspire them to take action despite the risks involved.
10. Intelligence and Problem-solving Skills
Leaders should be intelligent and possess excellent problem-solving skills. Being a genius is not necessary, but a high-level intellect is.
Any project will involve numerous obstacles and unanticipated challenges. Each one must be resolved in a timely and effective manner. There may be many diverse opinions on the team offering a variety of solutions.
It is up to the leader to make the final call. Therefore, they must be able to identify the best course of action and take the necessary steps.
If a leader is not a skilled problem-solver, then the project will fail and the team will lose confidence in leadership. However, if the leader is sharp and clever, they can derive and implement a solution that keeps the project moving forward.
11. Accepting Responsibility
A strong leader is able to accept responsibility for their mistakes. Instead of pointing fingers and blaming others for a failure, the leader acknowledges their role and is willing to admit fault. This can be a rare attribute among leaders.
Accepting blame is a hard thing to do. Many people in leadership believe they should be perfect because they are the leader. Some may fear that admitting a mistake will open the door to subordinates challenging their leadership, or maybe even try to take over their position.
However, a strong leader does not fear the people on their team. They also understand that admitting fault can actually instill greater trust. A leader that accepts responsibility for failure creates a work environment that is open and honest, and encourages both risk-taking and creativity.
The trait theory of leadership attempts to identify specific personality characteristics that great leaders possess. According to the theory, some people are born with these traits, but most are not. These traits manifest themselves in behaviors that produce success.
Although different researchers have produced slightly different leader profiles, there are many common characteristics, such as being charismatic, highly motivated, and able to inspire others. Great leaders have excellent problem-solving skills and can accept responsibility for their mistakes. They are decisive, courageous, and persevere in the face of tremendous challenges.
Although the beginnings of trait theory have their roots in the “great man” theory, the leadership qualities are not limited to only half the population. Many great leaders in history have been women.
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