Early Trait Approach

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the early trait approach

From the turn of the century until the 1940s, most leadership studies focused on the personality traits of individuals that made them leaders and not followers. Thomas Carlyle set the stage for the great man theory, and other researchers followed suit, trying to determine what kind of traits made a great leader great.

Francis Galton, an English scientist and researcher, wrote a book Hereditary Genius in 1869, which was the first social scientific attempt to study genius and greatness (Galton, 1869). To determine if human ability was hereditary, he chose “eminent” men (men who exhibited extraordinary leadership qualities) and counted the relatives to see how many additional “eminent” men were in their background. Galton hypothesized that there would be a higher percentage of “eminent” men in their lineage than in the general population. His testing (for which he invented methods of historiometry) showed that numbers of eminent relatives dropped off when going from first degree to second degree relatives, and from second to third. He took this as evidence of the inheritance of abilities.

As you might guess, even Galton recognized the limitations of these studies. He went on to study twins and adopted children, testing the “nature vs. nurture” term that he’d coined, but never strayed too far from the idea that qualities were inherited instead of taught.

In the early 1900s, American psychologist (and, like Galton, a eugenicist) Lewis Terman studied gifted children, and he conducted a variety of studies on the children and their parents to reinforce the idea of inheritance of abilities. And in the July, 1928 issue of The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, researcher W.H. Cowley wrote,

The approach to the study of leadership usually has been and perhaps always must be through the study of traits. Leadership obviously is not a simple trait but rather a complex of main traits fashioned together as a unity. An adequate appraisal of leadership would reduce this complex to its individual units, and any study of leadership to be of value should produce a list of traits which go together to make the leader. (Cowley 1928)

In 1948, after years of experiments and studies, researcher Ralph Stogdill determined that leadership exists between persons in a social situation, and that persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations (Stogdill, 1948). This marked the end of researchers’ tenacious ideas that individual differences characterized leadership, or that they’d be able to predict leadership effectiveness. In the next sections, we’ll talk about the behavioral and contingency approaches these new theories sparked. But we have to acknowledge here that this wasn’t the end of studying traits in leadership. The trait approach wasn’t done—it just took a break.

Looking at Trait Theory Today

So, if studying leadership traits isn’t useful, why are we talking about it? Well, surprisingly, interest in the topic continues, supported by media and general public opinion. Think about how media describes business leaders like Mary Barra and Bill Gates. They’re innovative. They make tough decisions. They’re philanthropic. The media is constantly throwing their personality traits out there for us to digest.

Twelve percent of all the research published on the topic of leadership between 1990 and 2004 contains the keywords “personality” and “leadership.” Interest persists, and new information has been uncovered. Researcher Steven J. Zaccaro pointed out that, even in Stogdill’s argument against traits, his studies contained conclusions suggesting that individual differences can still predict leader effectiveness.

Remember that Cowley wrote that traits collectively lent themselves to leadership effectiveness. Taking a page from this book, Zaccaro and colleagues developed the trait-leadership model that attempted to address traits and their influence on a leader’s effectiveness. The premise of the Trait-Leadership Model (Zaccaro, Kemp, Bader, 2004) is that (a) leadership emerges from the combined influence of multiple traits (integrated, rather than individual, traits) and (b) leader traits differ in their proximal influence on leadership.

Zaccaro’s model looks like this:

Diagram of Zaccaro's model. It starts with a Venn diagram of three distal attributes: personality, cognitive abilities, and motive values. There is an arrow to a Venn diagram of three proximal attributes: social appraisal skills, problem-solving skills, and expertise/tacit knowledge. There is an arrow to the leadership criteria. The leadership criteria is the leader process, which goes into leader emergence, leader effectiveness, and leader advancement and promotion. The leader's operating environment affects the leadership criteria and proximal attributes.

This model comes with a list of leader traits, which Zaccaro reminds us are always not exhaustive. But traits based on his 2004 model include extraversion, agreeableness, openness, neuroticism, creativity, and others.

Two other models have emerged in recent trait leadership studies. The Leader Trait Emergency Effectiveness Model, created by researcher Timothy Judge and colleagues, combines behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology theories of how traits are developed and puts them into a model that attempts to explain leader emergence and effectiveness. A second model, the Integrated Model of Leader Traits, Behaviors, and Effectiveness, created by D. S. Derue and colleagues, combines traits and behaviors in predicting leader effectiveness and tested the mediation effect of leader behaviors on the relationship between leader traits and effectiveness.

In spite of the increased focus of researchers on trait theory, it remains among the more criticized theories of leadership. Some argue it’s too simplistic. Others criticize that it studies leadership effectiveness as it’s perceived by followers, rather than actual leadership effectiveness. But we want to leave you with two thoughts on the trait approach before we move on:

  • Traits can predict leadership. Years ago the evidence suggested otherwise, but the presence of proper framework for classifying and organizing traits now help us understand this better.
  • Traits do a better job of predicting the emergence of leaders and the appearance of leadership than they do distinguishing between effective and ineffective leadership.

Stogdill’s comments encouraged researchers to look in other directions back in the late 1940s. If it’s not the personality traits that predict effective leadership, perhaps it’s the behavior of those leaders we should be studying. Let’s take a look at the behavioral approach to leadership next.

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