Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Trait Approach to Leadership

The Trait Approach arose from the Great Man theory as a way of identifying the key characteristics of successful leaders. Surveys of early trait research by Stogdill (1948) and Mann (1959) reported that many studies identified personality characteristics that appear to differentiate leaders from followers. It was believed that through this approach critical leadership traits could be isolated and that people with such traits could then be recruited, selected, and installed into leadership positions. However, as Peter Wright has commented, ‘…others found no differences between leaders and followers with respect to these characteristics, or even found people who possessed them were less likely to become leaders’ (Wright, 1996: 34).

The issue with this approach lay in the fact that almost as many traits were identified as studies undertaken to find them. After several years, it became apparent that no consistent traits could be classified. Although some traits were found in a considerable number of studies, the results were generally inconclusive. Some leaders might have possessed certain traits but their absence did not necessarily mean that the person was not a leader. The table lists the main leadership traits and skills identified by Stogdill (1974).

Although there was little consistency in the results of the various trait studies, however, some traits did appear more frequently than others including: technical skill, friendliness, task motivation, application to task, group task supportiveness, social skill, emotional control, administrative skill, general charisma, and intelligence. Of these, the most widely explored has tended to be ‘charisma’.

LeUnes and Nation (2001) advise not to disregard the Trait Approach completely. They suggest a wiser course would be to integrate trait theory into more comprehensive ones that take into account other leadership variables. Contemporary theorists do just that, they see leadership as a function of the interaction of the leader, the followers and the situation. One conceptualisation of this interactive perspective is that of Hollander (1984) who speaks of Locus of Leadership. This locus is the point at which there is a convergence of these variables. Hollander’s model provides a convenient springboard for discussing variants of this general theme that have had more application.

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