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Trait Theory

Technical Details

Name(s): Trait Theory
Author: Ralph M. Stogdill
Classification: Trait Theory
Year: 1974


  • That leadership depends upon having certain traits allows behavior modification to become more tenable in producing good leaders, if one takes to heart the writings of B.F. Skinner. Though the theory says that the traits are innate, this is controversial and allows testing as to whether or not the traits can be developed.
  • Knowing what general traits make a successful leader aids in identifying potential leaders.
  • The specific traits that are listed permits them to be available for quantification or correlation with validation techniques, such as brain scans.


  • One question of what has been really added to the "Great Man Theory", other than an enumeration of traits. It is controversial whether or not these traits are innate.
  • "Traits" in the trait theory refer to innate characteristics and it is questionable, at best, to consider them only as a partial outgrowth of personality.
  • There is no situational awareness. The terms may mean different things in different contexts. What is malevolent in one situation may be beneficial in another.


The trait theory states that leaders have certain innate traits that enable them to lead, such traits as assertiveness, dependability, persistence and adaptability it is convenient to list the elements that Ralph Stodgill (1974), the originator of the trait theory, determined [1]:



  • Adaptable to situations
  • Alert to social environment
  • Ambitious and achievement-orientated
  • Assertive
  • Cooperative
  • Decisive
  • Dependable
  • Dominant (desire to influence others)
  • Energetic (high activity level)
  • Persistent
  • Self-confident
  • Tolerant of stress
  • Willing to assume responsibility
  • Clever (intelligent)
  • Conceptually skilled
  • Creative
  • Diplomatic and tactful
  • Fluent in speaking
  • Knowledgeable about group task
  • Organized (administrative ability)
  • Persuasive
  • Socially skilled

McCall and Lombardo (1983), which expanded on the trait theory, argued that a leader is made or broken based on emotional stability, the ability to admit faults and errors, intellectual strength and having refined interpersonal skills and relations [2].


During World War II, people were focused on what enabled individuals like Hitler and Mussolini to become so popular. The most immediate observation was charisma; Hitler was electrifying. In his Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote of having to practice speaking and emulating the likes of Gustav Le Bon in his 1896 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. The iniquity of Hitler did not negate the fact that he was a "great" man in the sense of standing far above the others. Certainly, in modern times, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of anyone more vile.

From this thinking emerged the formalization of Trait Theory of Stogdill in 1974 with his Handbook of Leadership. In 1948 he said that leaders did not have traits that were unique to leaders. This followed much research during the previous two decades that had suggested the same. However, research methods changed and as a result, Stogdill came to his latter view.

The 1950s saw an emergence of behavioralism, the major proponent being B.F. Skinner and his view that a person's behavior could be modified. Psychoanalysis was riding high as well, where the inner mind of a person could be probed by "lying on the couch" and pouring out accounts of past experiences. During the Korean War, it was learned that sensory deprivation could cause a person to alter his/her thinking. Albeit crude, it was possible to utilize behaviorally-oriented techniques to manage traits. Here, a person could be transformed from an adherent to capitalism to communism (surely cognizant of the Stalinist mode). It was in this decade that the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers created a personality trait test with their name which has subsequently evolved into a very sophisticated personality testing instrument often is used for assessing how suited a person was to certain types of work. Carl Jung, a famous psychologist, held that there is a collective consciousness in which is found models or archetypes, of human personality traits. It was from this that Myers-Briggs derived their instrument to assess 16 traits. Scientists, for example, are curious, intelligent and detail-oriented. An accountant is also detail-oriented and is organized and would typically prefer routines. Architects are creative, intelligent and detailed-oriented. Some of these persons are more orientated towards leadership, and others prefer to serve.

The Boy Scouts USA (BSA) "...provides a program for young people that builds character, trains them in the responsibilities of participating citizenship...". [3] The BSA since its inception in 1910 has purported that a scout is "...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent." In fact, it can be claimed that many other leadership programs stress personal traits as being critical to leadership success.


One can question the originality of the basic trait theory, as it is similar to the "Great man theory", only the "Trait Theory" enumerates specific qualities a leader should possess. We see other examples of the assertion that traits are paramount, if not critical, to qualify a person to be a leader, a prominent example being the Boy Scouts. Much before that time, Machiavelli stated, " I say that all men when they are spoken of and chiefly princes for being more highly-placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise... ". [4] Not only is a successful leader known for honorable traits, but malevolent ones as well. Sometimes it is beneficial to be vicious and uncompromising and if an organization's survival is at stake, according to Machiavelli such characteristics are necessary, as in "We have not seen great things done in our time except by those who have been considered mean; the rest have failed. ". [5] Modern examples as stated previously, are Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. He also told us of context and relativity of traits by saying, "... something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity". [6] Surely, throughout history, no reason exists why the pattern, these ideas can be evidenced and one must bear in mind that when discussing the traits that make a leader "successful" it is not necessary to incorporate ethics. What it takes for a leader to be ethical narrows the list of traits. Machiavelli recounted that up to his time there were so many examples of cruelty, terror and other traits that reflected the darker side of humanity have allowed successful rule. Since his time, there have been even more egregious examples and no reason has been shown that would lead one to expect that the situation will change. Trait theory, it would be safe to say, needs qualification in listing not only what traits are successful, but traits that are desirous or not and in what contexts.

It is questionable that people have "innate traits". Personality, at least according to Gordon Alport, is an outgrowth of a basic value system, is dynamic, and traits are a result of conscious motivations, surely the nature of which also are dynamic. Traits emerge from a personality. A person has functional autonomy and is not caged by traits, which Trait Theory says are innate. This was a source of Alport's disagreement with Freud, who subscribed to that innateness. Alport's use of the word "trait" brought opprobrium from situationalists (context theorists) who thought that the psychologist was referring to innate qualities [7].

Trait theory sets forth numerous characteristics but these are very general and contextual, but further, to be of any value they should be measurable. What is "socially skilled", "clever", or "persistent"? We can use these in everyday speech but we do so within the context of a specific conversation. In addition, in what categories of endeavor are they critical? Being capable in organizing work crews is not the same ability to handle supply logistics.

We must ask whether people who have such an intense interest in leadership that they study assiduously and then write about it. This would be necessary when there is an ego factor in propounding a "new theory" and even though, in fact, the foundations about which they are writing have been around for some time. It is useful to set forth a framework for analysis and emphasize one aspect of successful leadership, but this should be done only as heuristic, useful to help grasp a concept or emphasize its importance.

Despite the traits a successful leader may have, this may not be enough for successful leadership to occur in all situations. There are group dynamics, as well as situational factors that may be beyond the control of the leader. Intent to bring about a situation does not always translate into results. Tasks may be too onerous to be met with traits alone.

Future of theory

Refinement of Trait Theory might be made to classify which traits are associated with the ethical system of a person. We have seen Machiavelli's discussion that having benevolent traits does not mean that a leader will be successful. By assessing a person's traits and correlating to known ethical systems, we may be on the verge of being able to predicting how a leader will perform and encourage or prevent her/his rise to leadership.

In a more scientific setting, cognitive neuroscience has been emerging as a viable way of assessing a person's psychological condition. For years, people have debated the "nature vs. nurture" dichotomy of human development. What role does genetics play and do certain families produce more leaders than others? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (in its four major revisions) draws its authority from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, where people are asked to subjectively respond to questions (albeit asked in several different ways) about their psychological states. Professionals in the psychological and psychiatric field use this manual to assess and classify a person's psychological state, but the whole procedure is subjective. Up until recent time, there has been no clear-cut approach to validating the diagnoses'. In fact, the DSM is controversial and has undergone numerous re-classification schemes.

Through cognitive neuroscience we can scan peoples' brains and assess what neurophysiological conditions are associated with political beliefs [8], predicting psychopathy [9], and predicting whether a person can be introspective [10]. A quick perusal of the field of cognitive neuroscience [11] gives a perspective on the future, where brain scans can not only correlate structures with activity but with dynamic analysis will also enable us to be able to predict what traits a person may have. We may see a world where prospective leaders are scanned before being allowed to head up an organization. We certainly are on the threshold of being able to see whether the Trait Theory is valid. Still, we will have to map an evaluation of observed behavior to the scans and determine which traits are desirable before we can proceed with that selection. Then of course, there is always the question of who should decide? Determining what value systems will prevail takes us back to Plato and the Republic, where philosophy is held to be the highest virtue. But, that is a topic for another discussion.

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Maia - WGU MBA student Not rated yet
Fascinating discussion around how traits stem from personality and change over time, but fundamentally, we remain who we are. Today, there's discussion …

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