Trait Theory



This theory of leadership suggests that leaders possess specific traits that inherently influence the individual’s success or failure as a leader. Weinbach (2008) discusses various qualitative traits of people that make for a successful leadership. Individuals have come up with lists that vary with one another, though there are some common factors. Traits such as flexibility, initiative, self-confidence, and intelligence appear on most lists for successful leadership. However, lists vary in describing social characteristics, physical appearance, ability to supervise, self assurance, and individualized approaches to work as desirable traits of a leader. Weinbach (2008) makes a good point in saying that such traits do make good leaders, but that they also make good followers, good friends, and some traits could even describe good pets. Weinbach (2008) also points out that some managers possessing most or all of these traits fail as leaders and others possessing only one or some of these traits can be successful leaders (Weinbach, 2008).

This theory of leadership is difficult to fit into the realm of social work as it seems to suggest that leaders are born and not made. This conflicts with the social work value that suggests all people have the potential for change. This theory has problems with regard to its measurability. Weinbach (2008) briefly discusses standardized testing in attempts to accurately measure intelligence. However, that is only one trait associated with successful leadership and such testing continues to be biased on several different levels. Measuring other traits may prove to be just as if not more difficult to measure (Weinbach, 2008).

Another problem that occurs within trait theory is illustrated in the diagram shown below. A person that exhibits intense traits such as self-confidence, deliberation and ambition may also be walking a fine line that could cross over to arrogance, impulsiveness, and aggressiveness. The latter mentioned traits would likely not be associated with good or successful leadership (Weinbach, 2008).

Overall trait theory may be good at partially explaining why an individual is a successful leader or unsuccessful leader, however, it may not be very reliable in predicting successful or unsuccessful leadership. When utilized or considered by itself, this theory is problematic in taking into account other more precise details with regard to effective management and leadership (Weinbach, 2008).

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Similarities between lower-order factors for ‘psychoticism’ and the low-order factors ‘openness’, ‘agreeableness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (Data from Matthews, Deary & Whiteman, 2003)
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The above listed article (Peterson, et. al., 2009) describes qualitative research which attempts to standardize traits such as hope, optimism and resiliency and link them to the effective leadership of the position of CEO. Weinbach (2008) briefly discusses the cultural biases associated with ongoing attempts at measuring intelligence. It seems likely that an attempt to measure other such character traits would be culturally biased and validity / reliability could be questionable. The concept of Trait Theory appears to be flawed on some levels. As mentioned earlier, such a theory is can be effective at explaining why an individual may be a good leader (as he or she has already proven themselves to be a good and effective leader). Though it is unlikely that the utilization of Trait Theory to predict good leadership skills will evolve.