Trait Leadership Theory

Summary of Trait Leadership Theory

Trait Leadership Theory arose from the “Great Man” theory of leadership. The Great Man theory, first espoused by Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th Century and later by Francis Galton in the mid-19th Century, posited that the actions of great men – who were born, not made – drove human history.

Emerging from the Great Man Theory was Trait Leadership Theory. The theory states that the personal and generally permanent qualities of the leader, or traits, both dictated the emergence of the leader and their effectiveness in leadership.  The focus of Trait Theory was on those relatively permanent characteristics of behavior, psychological and physiological components, thoughts, and emotions (Tirengel & Wilkens, 2015).  The theory notes that individual characteristics and differences were empirically able to predict leader effectiveness (Zaccaro, 2007).

One of the challenges pointed out in both the Great Man and Trait theories is the sheer number of potential traits to analyze and the subjectivity of their measurement. Recent research in Trait Theory, as discussed below, has tended to focus on the “Big 5” personality traits (Openness, Conscientious, Agreeableness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism) as key elements in the measurement and study of the theory.  Research in the 20th Century determined that five additional characteristics emerged as key traits for leaders: intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability (Tirengel & Wilkens, 2015).

The influence of Trait Theory on leadership research has oscillated between the 1950s and today.  Initially driven by the strong personalities of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, the theory lost emphasis to Situational Leadership Theory in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of emphasis on Trait Theory as additional qualitative and quantitative methods emerged with meta-analysis studies by Lord (1986) and Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) showing strong correlations between certain traits and characteristics of leaders made them unique.


Summary of Recent Primary Research

There has been a resurgence of analysis of Trait Theory in the early 21st Century. Much of it uses meta-analysis or the synthesis of many other studies to look for patterns and additional data correlations. Much recent research has looked at psychological traits instead of physical traits as determinants of leadership emergence and effectiveness.

Judge, et al. (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of 222 correlations across 73 samples of data to attempt to narrow and quantify the traits having the most impact on leadership, as well as the context in which those studies were conducted.

Judge applied quantitative analysis to the “Big 5” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism and found statistically significant relationships between these traits and both the emergence and effectiveness of leaders.  In general, Openness and Extraversion showed the highest correlations for both leadership emergence and effectiveness, while the level of neuroticism was negatively correlated (Judge et al., 2002).

Interestingly, when segmented by leaders in government, business and students, the factors shifted somewhat – indicating an environmental or cultural component to the traits factoring on the emergence and success of leaders (Judge et al., 2002).

A follow-on study by Bono and Judge (2004) crossed the Big 5 personality traits against charisma, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration – which are transformational leadership behaviors.  Taken, the 5-factor personality model does have some correlation with charisma, which is a key factor in leadership emergence.

When considering the transactional leadership characteristics of contingent reward, active and passive management, the correlations of personality to leadership traits drop even further.  This may be related to the value of the transaction itself rather than the power of the personality in the determination of leadership emergence and effectiveness.

Judge, et al. (2004) conducted a second meta-analysis of intelligence traits relative to leader emergence and effectiveness.  They found a strong correlation between perceived intelligence and leader emergence and a much lower correlation between objective intelligence and leader emergence or effectiveness. This indicates that leaders demonstrating a high perceived intelligence were more likely to emerge, whether that perception was objectively real or not.

Zaccaro et al. (2007) built on the 2004 Zaccaro study of leadership traits to identify elements of leader performance.  The 2004 study identified three distal attributes (Personality, Cognitive Ability, Motives, and Values) and three proximal attributes (Social Appraisal Skills, Problem Solving Skills, Expertise/Tacit Knowledge) that drove leader processes, which then determined leader emergence, effectiveness, and advancement (Zaccaro et al., 2004). The 2007 study argues that evidence demonstrates that trait theory shows precursors for leadership effectiveness. Combining leadership traits and attributes and analysis in combination are more likely to predict effectiveness than looking at any given trait or trait in isolation.  Finally, Zaccaro makes a compelling argument that the proximal attributes, when combined with the situation in which the leader operates, provide the ability to adapt to the leadership environment and remain effective.  Zaccaro argues that the trait theory applied to situational leadership conditions is a better predictor of emergence, effectiveness, and promotion than looking at any of these elements in isolation.


Analysis of Central Tenets

The central tenets of Trait Theory are the presence of certain personality and physical traits that may be observed and measured to determine the likelihood of emerging and being effective as a leader. Recent studies have focused on the “Big 5” personality traits as the observable and measurable characteristics against which to evaluate the emergence and effectiveness of leaders.  The research around these traits is relatively robust, first introduced in the 1960s by Types and Christal and further developed by Goldberg, Cattell, and Costa, and McCrae in the 1980s (“Big Five personality traits,” 2018).

In addition to the significant amount of research into both the theory and the Big 5 personality traits, the approach has other benefits. It provides a framework for measurement against which various components of personality may be assessed, compared, measured, and regressed.  It also provides an ability to distinguish traits between leaders and followers across industries, environments, or cultures. It provides the ability to assess differences between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness in a statistically rigorous way.

While the Big Five model is well studied, it has several limitations and critiques that must be considered part of the personality traits analysis.  The lexical hypothesis of the model creates language bias in the interpretation of definitions, such as neuroticism.  The definitions themselves are subject to interpretation, and the tests used to determine the personality traits have limitations in terms of predictive power and consistency in application.

Additionally, the measurement methodology has limitations, as each investigator must interpret the study results considering their definition and inclusion of sub-factors in the assignment and measurement of the personality traits into the Big 5 model. Additionally, as most of the measures are self-reported, there may be a self-reporting bias to the data gathering.  Additionally, when studying historical figures or non-engaged participants, the investigator is required to assess and assign the factors and measurements to the subject based on limited observation and information, which ignores the deep complexities of the human personality and emotion (“Big Five personality traits,” 2018, “Critique”).

When operating outside the Five-Factor model, the challenges are even greater.  Their list of potential traits and their measurement methodologies are nearly endless. While the Big 5 model may be restrictive in the dimensions and predictive power of emergence and effectiveness in leaders, expanding the number of traits given the measurement and definitional challenges exacerbates the consistency challenges noted as part of the Big 5 model.


Personal Application of the Theory

My quantitative background naturally drew me back to the observations in the Judge, et al. (2002) paper.  The attempt to quantify the theory cross the “Big 5” personality traits as well as the dimensional analysis between academics, government and business was interesting – and provided insights into one of the questions I had entering the program: “Why do “non-traditional” college presidents, those coming from a business or the military, so often fail in the university setting?”  As a non-traditional leader looking to enter the academy, the pattern of failure among these crossover leaders appeared to be well established.

The Judge (2002) paper looked at the dimensions associated with environment and culture.  Judge found that leaders that emerge and succeed in a business setting tend to have different strengths in their traits than those that succeed in the military of the academy (as represented by “students” in the Judge study) (Judge, 2002).  In particular, “Agreeableness” and “Conscientiousness” tend to have a much higher association with leadership in the academic setting – to the point where the correlation is negative on “Agreeableness” for business and government and strongly positive for student/academic environment.  The shared governance environment, requiring a more collaborative and power-sharing dynamic versus the very hierarchical dynamic in business and government, may help explain both the differences and provide insights into trait-based elements that may indicate success or failure of leadership in these three distinct environments.

Having operated in all three of the environments analyzed by the Judge study (Military/Government, Business and Academy), I would concur that the Big 5 personality traits required for emergence and effectiveness would be different – though the six elements noted by Zaccaro (2007) appear to be common across the three environments.  The need of the leader to apply cognitive skills, integrate motives and values, tie in personality traits, and the proximal attributes of social appraisal skills, problem-solving and subject matter expertise to effectively lead appeared universal.   The Zaccaro approach, integrating situational and trait theory – essentially applying traits to the situation – is supported through my observations across multiple industries.

Additionally, my experience is that cultural and gender differences may impact the importance of various traits in the emergence and effectiveness of leaders. While humanity has significant physiological and psychological commonality across cultures and genders, having run global teams, my Shanghai team responded to different leadership approaches and styles than my New York or London teams.  Most of the studies appear to have been focused on the United States and likely mostly male-dominated environments.  Additional research on trait theory across cultures and within industries where the gender dominance may be different than the “traditional” military-industrial complex in the United States may prove to have significant differences in leader emergence and especially effectiveness.


Summary and Concluding Thoughts

The recent resurgence in Trait Based leadership research, particularly the meta-analysis studies, demonstrates quantitative and qualitative support for the Trait Theory.  The influence of certain personality traits in the emergence and effectiveness of leaders has statistical and empirical support in research.  As noted above, the Trait Theory has limitations around the subjectivity of definitions and measurement of personality traits and is not fully dispositive in identifying leaders.  However, it seems to provide valuable insights into elements of emergence and effectiveness that, when combined with other factors, indicate the presence of objective leadership measures.



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