According to trait leadership theory, effective leaders have in common a pattern of personal characteristics that support their ability to mobilize others toward a shared vision. These traits include dimensions of personality and motives, sets of skills and capabilities, and behavior in social relationships. Using traits to explain effective leadership considers both characteristics that are inherited and attributes that are learned. This approach has been used to differentiate leaders from non-leaders. Understanding the importance of these traits can help organizations select, train, and develop leaders.
Following studies of trait leadership, most leader traits can be organized into four groups:
- Personality: Patterns of behavior, such as adaptability and comfort with ambiguity, and dispositional tendencies, such as motives and values, are associated with effective leadership.
- Demographic: In this category, gender has received by far the most attention in terms of leadership; however, most scholars have found that gender is not a determining demographic trait, as male and female leaders are equally effective.
- Task competence: This relates to how individuals approach the execution and performance of tasks. Hoffman groups intelligence, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and emotional stability into this category.
- Interpersonal attributes:These relate to how a leader approaches social interactions. According to Hoffman and others (2011), traits such as extroversion and agreeableness are included in this category.
Trait leadership also takes into account the distinction between proximal and distal character traits. Proximal characteristics are traits that are malleable and can be developed over time. These include interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills. Distal characteristics are more dispositional; that is, people are born with them. These include traits such as self-confidence, creativity, and charisma. Hoffman and others (2011) found that both types of characteristics are correlated with leader effectiveness, implying that while leaders can be born, they can also be made.
Trait Integration in Effective Leaders
Zaccoro and others (2004) introduced a model of leadership that categorized and specified six types of traits that influence leader effectiveness. The model rests on two basic premises about leadership traits. The first premise states that effective leadership derives not from any one trait, but from an integrated set of cognitive abilities, social capabilities, and dispositional tendencies, with each set of traits adding to the influence of the other. The second premise maintains that the traits differ in how directly they influence leadership. The premise suggests that distal attributes (such as dispositional attributes, cognitive abilities, and motives/values) come first and then lead to the development of proximal characteristics. This model contends the following traits are correlated with strong leadership potential: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, honesty, charisma, intelligence, creativity, achievement motivation, need for power, communication skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, technical knowledge, and management skills.
Zaccaro's trait integration model of effective leadership
This diagram visually represents Zaccaro's theory that distal attributes (e.g., cognitive abilities, personality, values) serve as precursors for the development of proximal personal characteristics (e.g. social skills, problem-solving skills), both of which contribute to leadership.