Trait Approach

The trait approach was one of the first systematic attempts to study leadership. However, the term trait has been the source of considerable ambiguity and confusion in the literature, referring sometimes and variously to personality, temperaments, dispositions, and abilities, as well as to any enduring qualities of the individual, including physical and demographic attributes (Zaccarro et al., 2004, p.103).

Allport (1961, p.347) defined a trait as a "neuropsychic structure having the capacity to render many stimuli functionally equivalent, and to initiate and guide equivalent (meaningfully consistent) forms of adaptive and expressive behaviour" (cited in Zaccarro et al., 2004, p.103).

Zaccarro et al. (2004, p.104) define leader traits as relatively stable and coherent integrations of personal characteristics that foster a consistent pattern of leadership performance across a variety of group and organisational situations. These characteristics reflect a range of stable individual differences, including personality, temperament, motives, cognitive abilities, and expertise.

In the early 20th century, leadership traits were studied to determine what made certain people great leaders. These theories focused on identifying the innate qualities and characteristics possessed by great social, political, and military leaders. It was believed that people were born with these traits, and only the "great" people possessed them. During this time, research concentrated on determining the specific traits that clearly differentiated leaders from followers (Northouse, 2007, p. 15).

Thus, history is marked with theories about leadership traits and characteristics as leadership is regarded as a difficult job with serious responsibilities. It is believed that these traits provide people with the potential to perform the necessary actions required to be successful leaders.

Based on this conception of leadership, the research on traits spanned the entire 20th century and numerous investigators began compiling lists of personality traits and ancillary "ability characteristics" associated with leadership.

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) refer to six traits that differ between leaders and non-leaders.

These traits include:

  • Drive (achievement, ambition, energy, tenacity and initiative).
  • Leadership Motivation (personalized or socialized)
  • Honesty/Integrity - honesty and integrity form the foundation of a trusting relationship between leaders and followers.
  • Self-confidence (including emotional stability)
  • Cognitive Ability (the ability to process large amounts of information and formulate strategies and solve problems).
  • Knowledge of Business (in-depth knowledge of the business allows leaders to make well-informed decisions and understand their consequences).









Sirje Virkus, Tallinn University, 2009