What Is Trait Approach?

Mature businessman working on phone with charming smile on face.
Mature businessman working on phone with charming smile on face. (Image: Maria Teijeiro/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

The trait theory of leadership was developed in the late 1900s by several prominent management researchers and academics. It is based on the premise that natural leaders are born with the combination of traits and skills, and that companies need to emphasize these traits when they place people into leadership roles. Though trait theory has some positive application for employers, it can inhibit opportunities for developed leaders.

Best Leadership Traits

Self-confidence, dominance, assertiveness and ambition were among the core traits shared by natural leaders in R.M. Stogdill's 1974 "Handbook of Leadership." In that work, Stogdill determined decision-making, energy and cooperation are among the qualities a person needs to perform the standard day-to-day activities of a leader. Leaders also use stress management, adaptability skills and social awareness to adjust to those around them and cope with demands.

Best Leadership Skills

Despite some overlap, Stogdill also noted some distinct skills for great leaders. Intelligence and conceptualization are pivotal skills for managers to make good decisions and pick up on signals that impact a business. Leaders use skills of diplomacy, creativity, persuasion, articulate communication and group acumen to direct and motive employees toward a shared vision and goals. Excellent organizational skills help in performing administrative tasks.

Trait Theory Advantages

The primary advantage of trait theory is that it provides a solid analysis for hiring someone into a typical leadership role. The more detailed the description of qualities and skills desired for a given position, the more apt hiring committees are to get the right person into a leadership role. In four separate studies from 2003 to 2006, the Ken Blanchard Companies supported many traits originally shared by trait theorists while suggesting additional traits of value such as empathy and emotional intelligence. Using trait theory as a model for promotion allows companies to compare internal and external candidates on their relative qualities and skills.

Trait Theory Limitations

Rigid adherence to trait theory may cause a company to miss out on hiring a leader who fits best into a given situation. For example, a company in transition might benefit from a charismatic and motivating leader. But a company devoted to the trait approach might bypass someone like that who didn't have excellent organizational skills. The original premise of trait theory also suggests that people can't develop traits and skills to become a good leader, and this is not always true.

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