How useful is the Trait Approach to Leadership

Topics: Leadership, Personality psychology, Psychology Pages: 5 (2137 words) Published: May 1, 2015
How useful is the Trait Approach to Leadership

1. Introduction
Leadership defined as position (power and responsibility relation) or person (personality traits) or result (outcomes) or process (Grint, 2010). Person-based leadership resonates with the traditional traits approach. Trait theory, as the name gives away, is an approach to identify human personality and measure patterns of thoughts and behaviours from individual to individual. Lord et al (1986) indicated that personality traits show relatively strong relations with individuals’ perceptions of leadership. Therefore how a leader’s character or personality influences leadership. This paper will critically evaluate how useful is the trait approach to leadership. It begins with early scholars work on the trait approach to identifying the qualities of great leaders; the following section will analyse strengths and criticisms of the trait approach to leadership; and then implications and application of trait theory will be discussed in order to gain insight into how the trait approach plays an indispensible part of leadership. A conclusion will be drawn on the key discussion: despite the shortcomings of the trait theory, it gives us benchmarks of personal leadership attributes. Trait theory is a useful tool for leaders to modify their approach as the situation demands and assist the organisations to improve their overall leadership effectiveness by using trait information. 2. The Trait Approach to Leadership

Fleenor (2006) indicated that early trait researchers viewed leadership as a unique set of characteristics that could be naturally possessed by great people (i.e., great man theory to leadership). In other words, great man theory stated that leaders are born either with or without the necessary traits of leadership. Around the mid-20th century, the trait theory questioned previous leadership traits studies and considered personality, social, physical or intellectual traits to distinguish leaders from non-leaders. Literally, a long list of traits of leadership were found by a century of research such as meta-analysis by Lord et al (1986), but there were five traits frequently appear in several of survey studies: Intelligence, Self-confidence, Determination, Integrity and Sociability. These traits being developed now and known as the ‘Big Five’, associated with being effective leaders, which are Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (Northouse, 2013).

However, the trait approach has been criticised as it failed to take into account the situational variance and followers perceptions on leadership (Northouse, 2013). Gore et al (2011, p334) noted that “personality traits do not make leaders inherently effective”. What matters is that those characteristics need to connect with leaders’ behaviours, and that behaviours need to be understood by others. As a result, behaviour theory has been developed and attempts to explain leadership based upon what leaders do rather than trait theory which seeks to describe leadership in terms of what leaders are (Grint, 2010). Also, contingency theory to leadership draw attention which recognises that the importance of the characteristics of followers and situational variance matter how leaders are functioning.

It is worth pointing out that, in recent years, attention has shifted back with a renewed interest in emphasising directly on a limited set of traits such as cognitive ability, attitude and knowledge of processes into effective leadership. Also, some studies have started investigating the role of gender, ethnicity and cross cultural differences in leadership.

3. Strengths / Advantages of the Trait Approach

The strengths of the trait approach lie in their ability to support the general image in the society that leaders are gifted people who possess a combination of great traits and can do extraordinary things. It is intuitively appealing and theoretically straightforward...
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