Trait-based Leadership


Trait-based leadership is based on leadership characteristics possessed by one person who by force of personality is able to lead people to accomplish things they would not ordinarily do. This theory of leadership is perhaps the oldest view of leadership and the one that is celebrated in myths, legends and much literature. This style of leadership focuses on qualities embodied in one person which allow that person to serve others in a way that enriches the whole community.

Historically, writers from Lao-Tzu through Homer and Shakespeare have celebrated the traits that made some men leaders. Wisdom, courage and selflessness were among the traits that have traditionally formed leadership. Physical strength and athleticism also contributed to a leader’s influence. Trait-based leaders dealt with big events and the large questions for whole populations. Leadership for day-to-day life was the realm of religious organizations.

As thinkers turned from faith to reason as a basis for knowing, they began to question why some people were able to lead and others followed. The early twentieth century brought measurement to the field of psychology and mental ability was targeted as a predictor of leadership capacity. As testing became more sophisticated, psychologists were able to identify which qualities were particular to leaders and enabled leadership. Studies through the 1940s and 1950s led to the conclusion that situations influenced the emergence of leaders and that effective leaders are able to adapt to various situations. (Zaccaro et al., 2005, p. 107)

Charismatic leadership studies revived the study of trait-based leadership in the late twentieth century. Social scientists continue to search for a predictor of which traits empower leaders by examining the personality traits that are particular to leaders.

Intelligence, in its all its forms, including creativity and divergent thinking, is being examined in conjunction with other personality traits  which enable leadership.  As social scientists include intuition and social and emotional skills, trait-based leadership research has broadened its scope to include the relationship between various forms of intelligence and leadership ability. 

Despite millenia of study, there is no definitive list of characteristics that make a good leader. While groups of characteristics indicate capacity for leadership, situational differences play a role in which desirable leadership characteristics vary considerably.

One of the variables that leads to the emergence of a trait-based leader is crisis. While many people claim that education is in crisis in North America, it is not the urgent, tense, life and death crisis that allows for trait-based leaders to emerge. Educational crisis is subtle and long-term and does not attract the leader who takes charge of and responsibility for the outcome of a situation. Trait-based leadership is not often found in educational settings.



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