Trait Theory of Leadership

  • Wallace SwanEmail author
Living reference work entry


Emotional Intelligence Social Intelligence Charismatic Leadership Masculine Trait Trait Theory 
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Montgomery Van Wart suggests that the basic idea of “trait theory” is that there are certain kinds of attributes that leaders have which improve the functioning of organizations as well as improving the stature of the leader (Van Wart and Suino 2012, p. 54).


The concept of trait theory draws its origins from the “Great Man” theories, as propounded by Thomas Carlyle in his 1841 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. This book suggests that one can learn how to do leadership if one studies the lives of great men. Some of the first versions of this approach emphasized the idea that if people demonstrated masculine traits and dominant behavior, then they could become leaders (Kinicki and Fugate 2012, p. 365).

Summary of Theories

Of course, the problem with “Great Man” theories is that they embody both an assumption that a leader is a man, which involves overlooking the lists of traits and accomplishments of women like Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and hundreds of distinguished female, as well as LGBT, leaders.

And it is interesting that these male traits are found to be a positive characteristic, not only by male respondents but also by female respondents as suggested John W. Fleenor in a 2006 article published in the Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Cherry 2016, p. 1).

If one were to create a less male dominated approach to leadership that involved characteristics of men and woman, as well as LGBT people, it would not be a major leap from “Great Person” theories to a somewhat more advanced trait theory, wherein one would look at the great leaders of all types and figure out what leadership traits they might have had.

In order to differentiate the traits possessed by leaders who are effective, Kinicki and Fugate noted that earlier research indicated one could tell a leader from a nonleader using a specific list of traits (Kinicki and Fugate 2012, p. 365).

An analysis by Richard Hodgetts in Management: Theory, Process, and Practice (1979) suggested that trait theory during the 1970s looked at people from the viewpoint of what specific attributes make a person a good leader (Hodgetts 1979, p. 289). Hodgetts cited two studies that identified problems with trait theory: (1) a 1940 study by Byrd looked at twenty traits that presumably characterized leaders, but different traits appeared on different lists and (2) Jenkins looked at studies of different kinds of groups and found that there was no particular group of traits that identified a person as a leader when that list was contrasted with a list of traits of people who were not leaders (Hodgetts 1979, p. 289). Northouse pointed out that Stogdill in 1948 did a study which said that there was no list of traits that could distinguish leaders from nonleaders, so as a result “situation” was the determining factor (Northouse 2016, p. 19) but later (1974) indicated that one needed to take a broader view to determine the type of the relationship between leadership, the particular organizational situation, and traits (Northouse, p. 20).

One also needs to think about whether the selected traits of a positive leader are inborn or developed through training and experience. It turns out that these traits may be both: Leaders may be characterized by being intelligent, extraverted, being risk-takers, as well as being able to take advantage of the context they are in and adapting to it (Riggio 2009). The type of intelligence needed appears to be social intelligence, which needs to be teamed up with empathy (along with the other traits listed above) – according to Riggio. However, James Alcock and Stan Sadava suggest a slightly different set of traits of leaders, several of which would appear to be inborn traits (Alcock and Sadava 2014, pp. 383–384).

Barbara Kellerman indicates that there are certain traits which are possessed by bad leaders (Kinicki and Fugate 2012, pp. 366–367). One need only look at a wide variety of recent leaders, including presidents of countries, to find examples of people with these characteristics.Thus a set of key positive traits has emerged, by process of elimination from this body of literature, according to Kinicki (Kinicki and Fugate 2012, pp. 368).

Besides the origins of trait theory in “Great Man” theories and the interrelationship of traits with situational aspects, another problem has been that an assumption was posited that a person is born with certain traits that make them more likely to become leaders. The only problem with this assumption is how one would go about determining which people are “leaders at birth” and which people are not. One would be hard-pressed to find a measurement technique that would allow one to determine which people are leaders at birth, unless it might be one’s social and economic status. Clearly a person might be more likely to exhibit the traits of a potential leader if they have access to a family that has money sufficient to provide an expensive quality education. The Brookings Institution’s “Hamilton Study” indicates that household incomes have decreased for many families with children; the United States is increasingly suffering from income inequality combined with lack of social mobility and that children may have the same ability but be limited by the amount of opportunity that they have (Brookings 2013).

Clearly, if the family of a potential leader has the financial resources to ensure that their child receives a university as well as a graduate level education, during the course of that process of education, the student will have access to training that will enhance any leadership traits that they may already have developed.

More recently, Northouse has noted the renewed importance that trait theory has been given due to the way in which visionary and charismatic leadership has recently been emphasized. In 2006 Jung and Sosick determined that leaders have a number of traits that relate well to their charismatic characteristics (Northouse 2016, p. 20). A synthesis of all of these characteristics was then assembled by Peter Northouse, who suggests that there are five major leadership traits (Northouse 2016, p. 23).

In the 1990s, studies had added to this research on trait leadership by exploring to the concepts of “emotional intelligence” and “social intelligence.”

We know that intelligence involves our ability to learn about knowledge and utilize it in our experience. By contrast, emotional intelligence involves the ability of a person to monitor and control their emotions (Cherry no date). A somewhat different concept, social intelligence, involves the relationships that develop when we interact with other people. Leaders with both emotional and social intelligence skills would seem to have a decided advantage in their supervisory and managerial activities.

Another new direction is indicated by Montgomery Van Wart who suggests that recently the use of basic trait theory approach has been supplemented by analysis of information about employees and the culture of the organization, among several other factors (Van Wart and Suino 2012, p. 56).

Another new direction is that involving the development of a five-factor trait dimension/domain model of Fleenor (2005, p. 831) which suggests that leadership must involve an interaction between the traits of the leader and the situation. For instance, a person with a certain set of traits might work well in a government or nonprofit organization that requires those skills, while conversely a manufacturing environment might require a manager with a significantly different set of traits.

Finally, Kinicki suggests that there are two useful features of trait theory, as it is currently studied, including using assessments of traits and personality when picking managers, as well as building programs of management training which presumably would emphasize how one might develop leadership traits (Kinicki and Fugate, p. 367).


Trait theory has gone through quite a few evolutionary changes. It started with traits of a “great man” (which were more recently critiqued in such a way as to yield “traits of great people”). But a major problem with traits was that it was difficult to see if there were any lists of traits that were different when applied to nonleaders as opposed to leaders. This approach then evolved into a more situational approach: A particular set of traits would be necessary in one specific situation, but a different set of traits might be required in another situation. Then it was necessary to sort out those traits which were given at birth, as opposed to those traits which have been enhanced by a person’s wealth and status. The theory of charismatic and visionary leadership then intersected with trait theory, and we found that there were certain traits that were more characteristic of charismatic and visionary leaders, as opposed to other kinds of leaders. More recently, competency approaches and the five-factor dimension/domain model of personality have led to studies of the relationship between traits and organizational performance. As a result of this overall process of development, we have developed an enhanced and more in-depth theory of how traits relate to leaders.



  1. Brookings: The Hamilton Project, Thirteen economic facts about social mobility and the role of education, June 2013.
  2. Cherry K (2016) What is the trait theory of leadership, Very Well, 9 May 2016.
  3. Cherry K (no date) What is emotional intelligence: definitions, history, and measures of emotional intelligence.
  4. Fleenor J (2005) Trait approach to leadership, In: Encyclopedia of industrial and organizational psychology.
  5. Hodgetts R (1979) Management: theory, process and practice, 2nd edn. W.B. Saunders, PhiladelphiaGoogle Scholar
  6. Kinicki A, Fugate M (2012) Organizational behavior: key concepts, skills and best practices, 5th edn. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Northouse P (2016) Leadership: theory and practice, 7th edn. Sage, Los AngelesGoogle Scholar
  8. Van Wart M with Suino P (2012) Leadership in public organizations: an introduction, 2nd edn. M.E.Sharpe, ArmonkGoogle Scholar
  9. Riggio R (2009) Leaders: born or made, 18 Mar 2009,,

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Walden UniversityMinneapolisUSA