Trait Theory – Leadership Theories Series

Use trait theory to identify the key traits that you need to exhibit consistently if you wish to be considered a leader.

The origins of trait theory are unknown but its purpose is simple. It tries to identify the innate characteristics that distinguish leaders from followers. Unfortunately, over a century of research has failed to reveal a definitive list of traits that all leaders possess.

Despite this failure the trait theory remains popular because people retain a romantic attachment to the idea that leaders are a special breed and have innate characteristics that make them worth following. Anyone who wishes to be considered a leader will need to display several if not all of the following traits.

Popular traits that leaders are expected to display include:

  1. Self-confidence.
  2. Social skills.
  3. Motivational skills.
  4. Integrity.
  5. Responsibility.
  6. Intelligence.
  7. Helicopter behavior.

Sector-specific traits may also be required, e.g. in the armed forces, police or fire service physical courage is important while in a University academic ability is essential.

How to use trait theory

Look for opportunities to demonstrate to your staff and boss that you have the necessary traits to be a leader. Exhibit self-confidence at all times especially when you’re terrified. How you feel is immaterial. It’s how you are perceived that counts.

You don’t have to be a great talker to be sociable. In any conversation encourage others to talk and actively listen. Do this and people will think you’re highly sociable and you’ll pick up valuable information.

To motivate staff lead by example, show enthusiasm for your team’s work and find ways to make staff feel proud of their work.

People follow those they trust, so act with integrity and demonstrate that you won’t sacrifice any member of staff on the altar of your own ambition.

Accept responsibility for the errors that you and your team make. Don’t blame others. Passing the buck is not allowed.

You need a certain level of intelligence to be a leader. But people seldom follow a genius because they don’t believe that a genius could understand their problems. President Clinton has a genius level IQ but when talking to the public he liked to appear as just another ‘good old boy’. It won him a lot of votes.

When considering a problem or making a decision rise like a helicopter above the narrow interests of your own team and make decisions based upon what is best for the entire organization. Do this consistently and you will be noticed.

Identify and demonstrate any sector-specific traits that are relevant.

Questions to ask

  1. How can I get a clear picture of how staff, colleagues and management see me.
  2. How can I build on the positives and eliminate the negatives that my appraisal has thrown up?
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