Trait theory of leadership is believed to be one of the oldest leadership theories developed by humans. The goal of this research is to advance readers’ knowledge of the trait leadership theory and its main constructs. The paper uses peer-reviewed journal articles published since 2000 to discuss the history of trait theory of leadership and the most important theoretical themes underlying it. A definition and discussion of trait is provided. The paper highlights the way individual traits are related to leadership. The role of context and situation in leadership and the quality of trait leadership research are evaluated.
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Keywords: trait leadership, theory, five-factor personality model, situation.
Theories of leadership are developed to advance professional knowledge of the leadership phenomenon and enable future leaders to develop skills and traits needed to succeed in a dynamic environment. Trait theory of leadership is rightly considered as one of the oldest leadership theories ever developed by humans. According to Yukl (2001), the theory of trait leadership has grown from the earliest attempts to identify personality traits, physical characteristics, and even genetic factors of people claimed to be natural leaders. With time, and under the influence of other leadership theories, trait theory gradually lost its momentum. Nonetheless, professional researchers are still interested in personality traits and their relation to leadership effectiveness. Dozens of studies have been published in an attempt to revive the image and popularity of trait theory. The trait leadership theory does have the potential to enhance the existing and encourage the development of future leadership abilities; yet, the importance of context and situation should not be easily dismissed. As a result, leadership traits are merely the beginning in the development of effective leadership.
Trait leadership is rightly considered as one of the oldest theories of leadership created by humans. At the beginning of the 20th century, historian Thomas Carlyle said that the world’s history was made by great men’s biographies (Judge, Bono, Ilies & Gerhardt, 2002). Human beliefs about leaders and leadership gave rise to the development of trait leadership theories (Judge et al., 2002). The earliest trait theories were created to explain the relation of personal traits to leaders’ achievements. Many ancient theories were built on the premise that leaders possessed physiological or inherited superior abilities that enabled them to manage and direct their followers (Gehring, 2007). History knows numerous examples when societies and communities attributed successful leadership to one or several genetic traits passed to royal families (Gehring, 2007). Influenced by the earliest theories, many organizational behavior scholars of the 20th century tried to identify and explain possible correlations between personality traits and the most distinguishing leadership features (Gehring, 2007). Underlying modern trait leadership theory are evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and socioanalytic theory (Judge, Piccolo & Kosalka, 2009). Unfortunately, contemporary trait leadership research reveals numerous methodological and logical inconsistencies, which do not allow trait theory to become the dominant leadership paradigm.
One of the main problems facing leadership scholars is how the concept of trait can be defined. The earliest studies treated leadership traits as heritable innate individual qualities (Zaccaro, 2007). With time, trait theory scholars shifted towards other enduring qualities that differentiate leaders and nonleaders (Zaccaro, 2007). To a large extent, a leadership trait can be defined as an individual behavioral pattern or personal characteristic that enables and guarantees sustained leadership effectiveness across different situations and contexts (Zaccaro, 2007). Therefore, a leadership trait is not simply an individual characteristic but necessarily a stable pattern of personal image and behavior, which is directly related to leadership effectiveness and does not change over time.
Consensus is growing that the five-factor model of personality can help to explain the most essential aspects of trait leadership theory. The five dimensions of the model include Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness (Judge et al., 2002). Ways in which these personality traits relate to leadership effectiveness vary greatly. For instance, neuroticism is associated with increased emotional instability and hostility in leaders. Consequently, neuroticism can be considered as one of the chief impediments to effective leadership. By contrast, openness to experience represents leaders’ tendency to be active, assertive, and social, offering greater opportunities to develop positive relationships with followers (Judge et al., 2002).
Yet, despite the relevance of traits for leadership effectiveness, the importance of context and situation should not be underscored. It would be correct to say that skills and traits that enhance leadership effectiveness in one situation can easily impede the implementation of relevant leadership strategies in a different context (Zaccaro, 2007). Moreover, even in the presence of essential leadership traits, leaders’ behaviors may or may not advance their image of an effective professional. Based on what Zaccaro (2007) writes, it would be fair to suggest that trait theory of leadership lacks situational dynamism.
Another problem relates to the way trait theory of leadership has been explored. More often than not, self-reporting mechanisms were used to develop better knowledge of leadership traits (Colbert et al., 2012). However, self-report forms and questionnaires lack sufficient objectivity and cannot create a full picture of trait leadership and its effectiveness. It is difficult not to agree to Colbert et al. (2012) that observer ratings and responses could create a good alternative to self-report methods of research in trait leadership. Future researchers should focus on the analysis of situational characteristics and their potential impacts on leadership traits. Trait theory of leadership can help to advance the knowledge of leaders to a new quality level but, objectively, traits are merely the beginning in the development of effective leadership.
The current state of research provides sufficient information about trait theory of leadership and its practical implications. Since the ancient times, humans have tried to define the most important leadership traits. Inherited personal characteristics were claimed to be at the heart of effective leadership. Those claims gave rise to the trait leadership theory. Trait theory of leadership suggests that individual characteristics are directly related to the quality and effectiveness of leadership. However, the theory disregards the importance of situational characteristics. To a large extent, and given the recent research findings, traits are just the first step to developing effective leadership