Trait theory of leadership

Leaders are born not made...

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The trait theory of leadership is the view that people are born with inherited traits - and that some traits are particularly suited to leadership.

Early research on leadership - which was a development of the Great man theory of leadership - was based on the psychological focus of the day, which was of people having inherited characteristics or traits.

Attention was thus put on identifying these traits, often by studying successful leaders. The focus was not [as it today] on finding way of teaching these "skills" to people to "develop" leaders, but was on finding other people with these traits who could also become great leaders.

Trait theory of leadership identifies the following traits and skills as critical to leaders [Stogdill 1974]:


  • Adaptable to situations
  • Alert to social environment
  • Ambitious
  • Assertive
  • Cooperative
  • Decisive
  • Dependable
  • Dominant (desire to influence others)
  • Energetic (high activity level)
  • Persistent
  • Self-confident
  • Tolerant of stress
  • Willing to assume responsibility


  • Clever (intelligent)
  • Conceptually skilled
  • Creative
  • Diplomatic and tactful
  • Fluent in speaking
  • Knowledgeable about group task
  • Organised (administrative ability)
  • Persuasive
  • Socially skilled

Four primary traits by which leaders could succeed or fail were identified by McCall and Lombardo [1983]:

  • Emotional stability - centred, confident, predictable - especially under stress
  • Admitting mistakes - rather than wasting energy evading discovery
  • Good interpersonal skills - ability to persuade others
  • Intellectual ability - to understand the wider holistic perpective

Changing views

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For many years it has been fashionable to discount the trait theory of leadership and to assume that inherited traits were far less important than learned and situational factors in those people fulfilling leadership roles.

However, the science and study of behavioural genetics is gradually refocusing attention on the fact that far more is to do with our genes and our inherited traits and characteristics than has been assumed or accepted for several decades.

At this point, I will re-state my own view - based on my experience - that leaders are born and not made. What's your view?

8 FREE Introductory Lessons from Practitioners Masterclass - HERE

Leading organisational change is inseparable from managing personal change

The scale and pace of change that is impacting organisations now is such that it increasingly pushes leaders (and followers) beyond their own capacity to handle it.

This scale and pace of change requires adaptive solutions. But this is only possible when we have either the personal capacity to do this, or have the self-improvement resources to help us.

We can't change because of our "immunity to change" or inner resistance.

Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE

Return back from Trait theory of leadership to Define Leadership

Rensis Likert - People before process

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practitioners masterclass,change management training,change managers,change management

practitioners masterclass,change management training,change managers,change management