Leadership Do Traits Matter

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) Academy of Management Executive, 1991 Vol. 5 No. 2

Leadership: do traits matter?

Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Edwin A. Locke, University of Maryland Executive Overview

The study ot leader traits has a long and controversial history. While research shows that the possession of certain traits alone does not guarantee leadership success, fhere is evidence that effective leaders are different from other people in certain key respects. Key leader traits include: drive (a broad term which includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative): leadership motivation (the desire fo lead but not to seek power as an end in itself): honesty and integrity: self-confidence (which is associated with emotional stability): cognitive ability: and knowledge of the business. There is less clear evidence for traits such as charisma, creativity and flexibility. We believe that the key leader traits help the leader acquire necessary skills: formulate an organizational vision and an effective plan for pursuing it: and take the necessary steps to implement the vision in reality.


Few issues have a more controversial history than leadership traits and characteristics. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, "great man" leadership theories were highly popular. These theories asserted that leadership qualities were inherited, especially by people from the upper class. Great men were, born, not made (in those days, virtually all business leaders were men). Today, great man theories are a popular foil for so-called superior models. To make the new models plausible, the "great men" are endowed with negative as well as positive traits. In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, for example. Slater and Bennis write, "The passing years have . . . given the coup de grace to another force that has retarded democratization—the 'great man' who with brilliance and farsightedness could preside wth dictatorial powers as the head of a growing organization."' Such great men, argue Slater and Bennis, become "outmoded" and dead hands on "the flexibility and growth of the organization." Under the new democratic model, they argue, "the individual is of relatively little significance." Early in the 20th century, the great man theories evolved into trait theories. ("Trait" is used broadly here to refer to people's general characteristics, including capacities, motives, or patterns of behavior.) Trait theories did not make assumptions about whether leadership traits were inherited or acquired. They simply asserted that leaders' characteristics are different from non-leaders. Traits such as height, weight, and physique are heavily dependent on heredity, whereas others such as knowledge of the industry are dependent on experience and learning. The trait view was brought into question during the mid-century when a prominent theorist, Ralph Stogdill, after a thorough review of the literature concluded that "A person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits."^ Stogdill believed this because the research showed that no traits were universally associated with effective leadership and that


Kirkpatrick and Locke

situational factors were also influential. For example, military leaders do not have traits identical to those of business leaders. Since Stogdill's early review, trait theory has made a come back, though in altered form. Recent research, using a variety of methods, has made it clear that successful leaders are not like other people. 'The evidence indicates that there are certain core traits which significantly contribute to business leaders' success. Traits alone, however, are not sufficient for successful business leadership—they are only a precondition. Leaders who possess the requisite traits must take certain actions to be successful (e.g. formulating a vision, role modeling, setting goals). Possessing the appropriate traits only makes it more likely that such...
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