Leadership trait theory is the idea that people are born with certain character traits or qualities. Since certain traits are associated with proficient leadership, it assumes that if you could identify people with the correct traits, you will be able to identify leaders and people with leadership potential.
Most of the time the traits are considered to be naturally part of a person’s personality from birth. From this standpoint, leadership trait theory tends to assume that people are born as leaders or not as leaders.
There is a lot of value in identifying the character traits associated with leadership. It is even more valuable to identify the character traits that followers look for in a leader. These traits would be the characteristics of an individual who is most likely to attract followers.
However, the idea that leadership traits are inborn and unchangeable appears to be incorrect. It is true that many of our dispositions and tendencies are influenced by our personalities and the way we are born. However, most people recognize that it is possible for someone to change their character traits for the worse. Someone who is known for being honest can learn to be deceitful. The whole idea of saying that someone was “corrupted” is based on the fact that people can learn bad character traits.
If people can learn bad character traits and become different than the way they are naturally through conditioning, it logically follows that they can learn good character traits as well. A person who is prone to being dishonest can learn to be honest. A person who avoids risks can learn to take risks. It may not be easy, but it can be done.
The book The Leadership Challenge identifies 20 character traits that are generally associated with good leaders. The top five traits are:
These are all traits that someone can learn to implement. It may not be easy, but with practice you can become more inspiring, with practice you can become more honest, with practice you can become more competent.
What makes this less difficult than it first seems, is that these are character traits that followers are looking for in a leader. By simply displaying these character traits more consistently an individual is able to change how they are perceived. Sometimes it isn’t a problem with changing your internal characteristics—it is just an issue of displaying those characteristics more openly.
By focusing on your own character and developing traits associated with leadership, you can increase your ability to lead.
Scott Yonker says
For me, I’ve had to learn to display those characteristics more openly to cause my strong ‘inner game’ to erupt and radiate into a powerful ‘outer game’
For many years, it was as if I was keeping my quality some big secret- mostly because I was over-modest
Thankfully, I know better now- these are not characteristics that should be kept in obscurity
Donna Conrey says
Thank you for a very thought-provoking message. You have inspired me to be even more self-reflective and aware of the qualities I do possess. More importantly, you tactfully give people permission to acknowledge those qualities and show them in non-selfserving, admirable ways. I feel a renewed commitment to myself and my career pursuits.
Robert Alderman says
I like your work on Leadership.
I have a comment on your top five traits.
You do not mention EMPATHY or COMMUNICATION.
The success model which has been developed at Harvard by Daniel Goleman Ph.D.relegates some of your top five to secondary positions.
If you cannot deal with people in a manner in which they want to follow you then you are not their leader. VOLUNTARY FOLLOWERSHIP.
Here is a question you may want to use in your leadership work.
Ask any leader how many direct reports he/she has. Then ask if you were to leave the company and start a new company how many people would follow you?
The question is powerful and makes them dig deep to find an answer. I have had a range of all of them to none of them. Those that actually said none are all long gone from those companies.I have no empirical data but my assumption if at least half of your people would not follow you then you are definitely not a leader.
Robert Alderman CEO
Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst
Those other aspects can definitely be important, but the 5 traits I mentioned come from Kouzes and Posner’s research into leadership that was done for the book The Leadership Challenge. Basically they were the top 5 traits that people want in someone they will follow.