Trait Theory of Leadership

Leadership Advisory

Before contingency and behavioral theories began gaining ground, there were leadership studies in the first half of the 20th century that the Trait Theory of Leadership focused on.

The trait theory’s main idea is that there are specific, common personality traits found in most or all leaders. Traits such as the physical, mental, and social characteristics of leaders are analyzed in the trait theory of leadership, as an attempt to understand which of these traits are common among successful leaders. The leadership trait theory argues that people can become more successful leaders by adopting and developing said traits. This contrasts significantly with the Great Man Theory of the 1800s.

In this article, we discuss the trait theory of leadership, how it originated, and some examples of trait theory to guide the development of traits needed for leadership success. Many of these are characteristics and skills that can be improved upon in order to increase the performance of CEOs and other leaders.

Characteristics of Trait Theory of Leadership


The trait theory of leadership, unlike the Great Man theory, does not follow the belief that good leaders are born with a set of traits. Instead, its trait approach focuses on what makes people become effective leaders and tries to isolate those characteristics. In this way, a person could theoretically develop those leadership qualities to become a great leader – something anyone can do without being born with a set of skills.

According to advocates of the trait theory of leadership, and the theory itself, leaders tend to be psychologically adjusted to display better judgment, are better at promoting themselves, engage more frequently in social activities, don’t hesitate to take lead, and seem to always know more.

In other words, if a person wishes to become a better leader, they should never stop learning, always stay well-informed, learn how to promote themselves, and place themselves in situations where such traits can be of help.

According to the trait theory of leadership, any of these traits and leadership attributes can be learned and developed over time.

Examples of Trait Theory of Leadership


According to some studies, the major leadership traits that make for a successful leader include the following:

Physical and Constitutional Factors

Height, weight, physique, appearance, and health all form part of physical and constitutional factors. Some scientists believe that these factors can have an impact on a person’s activity and success.

However, it is important to remember that not all successful leaders throughout history were considered conventionally attractive. In other words, while certain physical characteristics may aid in success, that is not to say that they are necessary.


Leaders are often deemed as possessing a higher level of intelligence than the average intelligence of their followers. As a result, this is often considered the most important characteristic.

In this case, intelligence is described as the ability to interpret problems, analyze accurately, and think scientifically. This allows good leaders to make decisions that help the group progress.

While this is a quality related to the human brain and its functioning, many psychologists believe that the proper training programs can help improve intelligence.


Many great leaders are self-assured and confident in their actions and beliefs. In turn, they inspire confidence in their followers.


Great leaders tend to be confident in their actions and decisions. They are also aware that making tough choices is a responsibility that lies with them.

Emotional Stability

Successful leaders are often known for acting consistently and controlling or regulating their emotions. This is especially true for negative emotions like anger. In doing so, they can avoid overreactions.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Great leaders are those that can think outside the box. Being flexible is an ability that makes leaders adaptable, which means that they deal better with sudden changes and crises.

Courage and Responsibility

Good leaders are those who are willing to take on responsibility, who don’t shy away from challenges, and who are able to take ownership of their mistakes.


Most successful leaders are skilled in the art of communication. This includes knowledge of various interaction techniques and being able to communicate successfully – with colleagues, team members, and other leaders.

Role Model

When team members are unsure of how to complete tasks, they typically look to their leaders for guidance. For this reason, leaders need to be skilled and willing to help. Great leaders are also typically skilled at planning, delegating, analyzing, controlling situations, and decision-making.


Good leaders should have the ability to work with team members seamlessly, and in the process, earn their trust, confidence, and loyalty. This ensures willing cooperation from team members without the need for pressure.

Foresight and Vision

Successful leaders need to have the ability to accurately visualize and predict trends, and act accordingly.


Empathy, the ability to see things from another person’s point of view, is an important skill for people in leadership positions. It helps leaders to understand others and their behavior, as well as to be accommodating when necessary. It also helps to build better relationships in the workplace.


Another characteristic of a great leader is the ability to motivate and inspire employees or team members to give their all in the workplace.

However, keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and merely serves as suggested common leader traits among successful leaders according to the trait theory of leadership. Even if they don’t have the majority of these traits, a person could still be a successful leader. Similarly, someone who has all of these leadership skills may never come into a leadership position.

Over the years, many other lists have emerged with common leadership traits. Some studies may contain as many as fourteen, while others may only include three or four.

Other examples of leadership traits that have been found in other lists include:

  • Insight
  • Alertness
  • Initiative
  • Persistence
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Sociability
  • Masculinity
  • Dominance
  • Extraversion
  • Conservatism
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness
  • Neuroticism
  • Honesty and Integrity
  • Charisma
  • Creativity
  • Need for Power
  • Problem-solving skills

Due to the changing nature of leadership, society, and atmospheres in the workplace, leadership traits tend to differ. While older lists from early research may consider a masculine, dominant person a better leader, later lists from newer research may focus more on interpersonal skills and integrity.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Trait Theory of Leadership


Perhaps the biggest advantage of the trait leadership theory is that it is based on science, unlike the Great Man theory. Within the Great Man theory, researchers were attempting to find a correlation between a limited number of traits and effective leadership. However, research has since shown that leaders have more traits than were included in the original Great Man theory list. As a result, the Great Man theory was discredited.

As it aims to find differences between individuals, the trait theory of leadership is considered one of the major theoretical areas in the study of the human personality. It was one of the first systemic attempts at studying and understanding the nature of leadership.

This trait approach functions with the core belief that human personalities are formed from various traits, as opposed to learned techniques, and attempts to measure them.

However, the trait theory of leadership has also been highly criticized, with many researchers believing that these critiques are reasonable. One of the critiques is that while the theory itself is straightforward, it consistently fails to produce equally straightforward or clear results.



The main advantages of the leadership trait theory are:

  • The focus was moved from the Great Man theory, which opened new possibilities in the field of leadership studies
  • Significant advances in the study of human characteristics and personalities
  • Leadership is no longer reduced to as little as five major leadership traits or a few leadership styles, it is considered more complex
  • It offers guidance to leaders in terms of which skills and traits to improve



Some of the weaknesses, limitations, and disadvantages of the leadership trait theory include:

  • It fails to cover all circumstances and situations
  • Different authors suggest different traits, which can make the theory confusing and unspecific
  • It doesn’t consider other factors in leadership capabilities
  • Fails to provide comparative results
  • Doesn’t show how the performance and behavior of leaders may be affected by different degrees of specific traits
  • There are no definite tests to measure the traits of leadership