Elevating Leadership Series: Trait-Based Leadership

Elevating Leadership Series: Trait-Based Leadership

The holidays are over, and it’s time to get back to leadership! Who’s ready?

Since we’re through a good amount of the meta associated with leadership, I’m going to ask this question: Are leaders born or made?

If you say born, then you’re probably initially behind the concept of trait-based leadership. If you said made, then trait-based leadership probably doesn’t feel as appealing. Whatever your opinion, trait-based leadership suggests that leaders are either born with or must acquire the specific attributes necessary to lead. In the born-scenario, leaders are predestined to lead. In the made-scenario, leaders are born without the traits necessary for leadership and must acquire them from a trait repository like a more experienced leader, a book, or a training program. Whichever path, the fundamental idea behind trait-based leadership is to make a potential leader suitable for leadership. We should note that a trait is different from a skill in that traits have a behavioral component while skills have a technical component absent in a trait.

To be clear, trait leadership theorizes that a set of (or a pattern of) predetermined attributes consistently contributes to leader success. I suppose it sounds about right because a courageous leader is far more likely to be successful than a cowardly leader right? And, surely a bright leader is far more likely to achieve success than his or her dense counterpart. Traits in the above case are esoteric and intangible. Well, what happens when we consider more tangible traits like gender, race, appearance, height, etc.? Physical traits do play a part in how we perceive one another, and leadership is no different. I want to point out here that, as a general rule, attractive persons who are tall in stature are going to be prejudged as having better leadership potential. And, based on the society in which you exist, men may be assumed better leaders than women. I’ll avoid controversy here by not explaining the effect of race, but I’m sure you can devise your own hypotheses.

Do you remember in the Leadership & History entry, I mentioned the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle of whom I’m not a fan and who popularized The Great Man Theory (GMT) in the Nineteenth Century? If not, you’re more than welcome to go back and refresh your memory. In any case, Carlyle devised GMT from trait proto-theory. In a nutshell, within a population, a leader with the appropriate (or magical depending on which direction you’re observing) mix of traits causes the leader to rise to the forefront. Therefore, great (or terrible) leaders all subscribe to a trait pattern that places them in a position of leadership. Following Carlyle’s theory a little further, we can surmise that by comparing leaders throughout time in their individual circumstances, we should be able to catalog their common patterns. So, according to GMT, leaders like Alexander the Great, Xerxes, Julius Caesar, Sal Al-din, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, and Che Guevara exhibit predictable patterns of traits (or a group of patterns) that inform their abilities in leading and, in turn, forecast their abilities to lead.

I guess, at this point, we should ask ourselves what are the traits of leaders. If we implore everyone in the room to write down the top five traits of leaders, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that the list would be myriad. Surely some traits would overlap, but there would be little pattern. Consider, though, if we implore everyone in the room to focus the identification of traits to specific leaders. We then find ourselves having to isolate our assessment to specific leaders in specific circumstances…which makes it difficult to discuss trait-based leadership because specific leaders in specific circumstances imply individual and unique rather than patterned And, since we would focus our attention on a specific leader in a specific circumstance, we can surmise that their traits made them suitable for leadership in their circumstance and their circumstance only. For example, would Mother Theresa have been viewed as a great leader if she had lead Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the charge on San Juan Hill in Cuba? You see here’s where trait-based leadership theory begins to fall apart.

Traits are completely subjective and are not quantifiable. If we go back up to the list of great leaders, we can see the subjectivity at work: the Persians probably viewed Xerxes as a great, progressive leader; however, the Greek accounts argued that. Same goes for George Washington: to revolutionary Americans, Washington was an acclaimed leader; however, the colonial British Crown labeled him a traitor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that trait-based theory is trash; the theory definitely offers some insight. What I am saying is that we have to be careful how we assign leadership based on traits. After all, even the most courageous leader can be viewed as reckless if observed from the correct angle (Colonel Custer, anybody?). We definitely need to take traits into account, but it’s in my professional opinion that we can’t base our assessment solely on them. And, while I appreciate what Carlyle has to say academically, I take his GMT with a grain salt. I definitely recommend reading his essay On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroic in History. It’s very insightful, especially for the time period in which he wrote it.

Um, that’s great and all, Kenny, but how does this help me be a better leader?

You know what? You’re right. I just spouted a ton of valuable rhetoric but didn’t offer you anything actionable. So, here you go: Industry leaders and scholars suggest that the traits of an extraordinary leader are: 1) models of excellence, 2) inspiring, 3) challenging, 4) empowering, and 5) encouraging. Matter fact, several books describe these traits by asserting that extraordinary leaders:

  1. Model the way;
  2. Create shared inspiration;
  3. Challenge processes;
  4. Enable others to succeed;
  5. Encourage the heart.

Start there.

Happy New Year!


Carlyle, T. (1888). On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history. New York, NY: Frederick A Stokes & Brother.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership, theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I feel like there’s a “part two” to this one, that I can’t wait to read!

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