Traditional leadership theories

Though the scientific study of leadership has offered numerous definitions of leadership, the traditional perspectives tend to fall under three general frameworks: traits, behavior, and situation. Scholarship has recognized the value of each perspective for understanding a part of the leadership puzzle. However, isolating perspectives can lead to methodological myopia by limiting understanding to a single perspective, limiting leadership capacity in dynamic contexts. Integrating and synthesizing different perspectives can provide a more complete understanding of leadership, improving leadership effectiveness regardless of the situation.

The Traditional Leadership Theories section will review the contributions and limitations of the traditional perspectives offered by scientific study of leadership, and will conclude by arguing that isolating traits, behaviors, or situational variables provides an incomplete picture of a dynamic process; leadership is not traits, behavior, or situation, it is an interaction among all of these elements and more.

Following are the key theories this section will cover:

  • Traits make the leader
  • Behavior is the leader
  • Context is the leader
  • Interaction is the leader


Traits make the leader

Early leadership researchers like Robert Carlyle and Herbert Spenser introduced “great man” theories in the late-19th century to explain how human history emerged “from the actions of Great Men” (Carneiro, 1981, p. 171). Great man theories asserted that leaders are born not made; great leaders have inherent qualities that destined them to lead.

Great man theories became traits theory in the early 20th century, as researchers attempted to isolate the psychological characteristics that distinguish leaders from non-leaders. Rather than making assumptions about the nature or nurture of leadership characteristics, traits theory asserted that leaders have characteristics that are different from those of non-leaders. The goal of a great leader is to motivate people to comply. Leaders with the right traits can overcome any challenge (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991; Yukl, 2010; Bass, 2008; Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005; Stogdill, 1948).

In a review of trait theory literature from the first half of the 20th century, Ralph Stogdill (1948) identified five traits that differentiate leaders from followers: intelligence, dominance, self-confidence, level of energy and activity, and task-relevant knowledge. Richard Mann (1959) later identified intelligence as the “best predictor of individual behavior” (p. 241). Exploring the connection between personality traits and leadership, Tim Judge (2004) and his colleagues found that conscientiousness and openness to experience were the traits that correlated with effective leadership and that intelligence is only a moderate factor. They concluded that a leader’s personality is more important than his or her intelligence.

Traits of bad leaders

Kellerman (2004) emphasized the importance of identifying bad leadership traits to enhance the understanding of leadership. To Kellerman, since bad leadership permeates and threatens organizations and society, focusing exclusively on the traits of good leaders causes researchers to miss connections between good and bad leadership. Examining examples of bad leadership, Kellerman identified seven traits of bad leaders:

  • Incompetent
  • Rigid
  • Intemperate
  • Callous
  • Corrupt
  • Insular
  • Evil

Understanding the dark side of leadership provides insight for not only enhancing leadership but also for improving followership.

Traits meet the dustbin

Most scholars today relegate “great men” and trait theory to history. Phillip Slater and Warren Bennis (1990) argued that great men are “outmoded” in democratic models that require organizations to be flexible while making the individual of “little significance” (pp. 270-271). Contemporary critics of traits theory continue to assert that it is not successful because it ignores important situational factors and behaviors. However, some modern scholars found that the problem with trait theory was not its assumptions, but the lack of satisfactory research techniques to validate the assumptions (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991).

Traits nouveau

Despite the near-universal condemnations among some contemporary scholars, an altered form of trait theory reemerged in the late 20th century when Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke (1991) asserted, “Research… has made it clear that successful leaders are not like other people” (p. 40). The researchers proposed that “certain core traits” (p. 49) contribute to leadership success, including drive, leadership motivation, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, cognitive ability, confidence, and knowledge. Secondary traits that do not have strong empirical support include charisma, creativity or flexibility, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) suggested that traits represent only leadership potential. Additional necessary factors for actualizing leadership include vision, skills, and ability to implement the vision. Key among these factors is vision. “The core job of a leader is to create a vision, a concept of what the organization should be” (p. 56). Next, the leader must be able to communicate the vision to followers and develop a strategy for achieving the vision.

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) concluded by arguing that leaders are different from other people. Suggesting that leadership is in the hands of anyone and everyone does a “disservice to leaders” who must have “stuff [that] is not equally present among all people.” They acknowledge that the situation and the place may be important factors. However, understanding the “stuff” that helps a person to influence others to tap opportunity is vital for selecting and training effective leaders (p. 59). Scholars like Daniel Goleman (1998) and Barbara Kellerman offered additional contributions to the reemergence of traits theory.

Applications to the practical world

Though generally dismissed in academic circles, trait theory has reemerged as a relevant applied theory in business. From an organizational behavior perspective, Kreitner and Kinicki (2008) declared, “traits play a central role in how we perceive leaders, and they ultimately impact leadership effectiveness” (2008, p. 599). Differentiating between positive and negative traits can help to guide strategy for assessing leadership potential and developing leadership competency. Organizations and consultants use personality and trait assessments to guide hiring decisions and development programs for employees and leaders.


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