Traits define leaders’ behaviors. Good ones make for great leaders. Discover what different experts say leaders should possess.
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What are the Leadership Traits?
This page focuses on the desired traits of leaders. You might ask though, what are the differences between traits and styles?
A trait is a stable set of personality characteristics that get expressed across many (but not all situations). So, if you have the right leadership traits, people will perceive you as a leader.
A Trait is Not a Style
A style, though, is based on the context or the situation that you find yourself in. In fact, there are at least 18 different types of styles from which to choose. So with styles, flexibility is the name of the game.
In this case, you would follow the advice of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who wrote in Meditations, “Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”
Why Are There So Many Leadership Traits?
In psychology, a trait is a stable characteristic–potentially lasting throughout one’s entire life. Coming up with an exact list set of leadership traits is difficult due to:
Culture. What works in the West does not work in the East, a trait that works in France will be less successful in America.
Context. What trait is appropriate depends on the context one finds oneself.
Paradox. Leadership is paradoxical. It defies logic due to unconscious factors and emotions.
Means and Ends. Leadership is both a means when it focuses on process and behaviors and an end when leaders focus on goals and outcomes.
Having said that an exact list is impossible to come up with, does not mean that leadership traits are not important in leadership development. It simply means that different experts will come up with different lists, so a certain amount of confusion will need to be tolerated.
It’s reasonable to assume that certain personality traits are associated with leadership, while others are not. Below are articles that talk about traits associated with leadership success and failure.
Lists of Leadership Traits: 13 Current and Classic Research
1. Hooper, Michael (2007). Culture and Leadership Effectiveness (GLOBE Research)
It’s reasonable to assume that certain personality traits help project leadership. Yet, you can have both narcissistic leaders and humble ones – two opposite traits. Also, certain traits are more important in some cultures but less important in others. For example, Americans are more narcissistic while the Chinese are more humble.
One can exercise stellar leadership in France, yet fail miserably in Japan. Still, it’s thought that certain leadership traits are universal across all cultures — thus the importance of the GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) studies.
According to GLOBE research, ten major cultural clusters are operating in the world today.
And the same body of research has led to a list of 21 “universal” traits. There is also a set of cultural traits that are not universal, but dependent on a particular culture. The importance of this cannot be overestimated since many ex-pats fail for the very reasons this study makes obvious.
2. A Master List of Leadership Traits from the American Library Association
This article lists seven categories: physical, emotional, social, intellectual/intelligence, communication, experience, and trustworthiness. Technically, some of what is listed are really classified as skills (communication) while experience is not really a trait at all. Good to look over, the first two categories contain more traits.
Some of the more interesting ones from the first two are the physical and emotional:
- Self-Confidence. This one tends to be a key factor. It’s been said the leaders might be wrong but are never in doubt.
- High Energy Levels. One that rarely makes people, but is incredibly important and almost impossible to quantify. Successful leaders are driven, they are ambitious, and possess an abundant fountain of motivation that does not end.
- Stress Tolerance. Honestly, being in a leadership role is stressful. It is much safer to be a follower since you can hide in the pack. Of course, one can also argue that this is a state of mind and a skill that one can develop.
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This article emphasizes the importance of refining your leadership traits along seven dimensions. It assumes that traits of leadership must be neither too hot nor too cold, neither too strong nor too weak. For example, one should learn to be:
- Strong and not rude;
- Kind but not weak;
- Bold but not a bully,
- Humble but not timid;
- Proud but not arrogant;
- Humorous but not silly.
4. Air Force Leadership (AFP-35-49)
Military organizations, more than most corporations, devote a tremendous amount of time, money, and effect to developing their leaders. One can do well by managing during the good times, but dealing with crisis and adversity is still the forte of a great leader.
The document and another one on leadership traits contain some interesting traits, ones that ultimately can become organizational values. Traits mentioned in the article include:
- Loyalty (up and down),
- Energy, and
Additionally, you will find several leadership principles to keep in mind. Definitely a keeper.
Leadership traits are a subset of personality traits. According to Raymond Cattell, a pioneer in the field of personality assessments, good leaders have these personality characteristics.
- Emotional stability
If there is an organization where effective leadership must be cultivated and developed, it is the military. While the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marines do not agree on a common list of traits, one can assume that one is doing something right if one has followers who exhibit respect, confidence, and loyal cooperation.
Unfortunately for us all, bad leaders occupy positions of power in business and government. The article is a summary of a book on the same subject. In this case, the seven deadly leadership traits include being:
- Insular, and
One sees it over and over, large corporations are really not good at choosing the next CEO. And in fact, it seems that some formerly great companies have become very good at putting the wrong person into the big chair. All of us no doubt have our own pet reasons why that is. One of mine is that interviews are an extremely poor method of predicting job performance. This article lists seven must-have traits (notice, one is not getting an MBA or a JD.) Many of these are leadership traits and traits of personality.
- Emotional intelligence
This list reflects a military perspective, so it can be more appropriate to military leadership traits, rather than characteristics seen in the broader population.
Five that do include:
- Openness to experience
- Appetite for learning.
10. Snead, Mark (N.D.). The Five Most Important Leadership Traits, Leadership501.com
Of course, no study on the traits list would be complete without an article talking about, “The most important ones.” I’m sure each of us has our favorites. Snead says they are:
It’s actually a pretty good list of traits. The only problem is with the last one. The author implies that you can become more intelligent by your own efforts. This is doubtful. Sure you can fill your mind full of expertise, but this is the same thing as IQ.
Remember, that IQ is genetically determined–you either got it or you don’t. It is unlikely that you can dramatically improve what you already have. BUT, you can get a great deal of traction by learning emotional intelligence (EQ).
11. Farrall, Rachel (2011). 23 Traits of Good Leaders. CNN.com
This is a nice starting point for looking at yourself and trying to figure out what your traits are. The article has 23 suggestions by experts who are at least savvy enough to get a book published.
The article is kind of weird since it first starts out talking about a leadership style as if it were the same thing as a trait. Otherwise, it’s not too bad.
12. Eastwood, Brian (2019). The Five Qualities Successful Leaders All have in Common. Northeastern.edu
Leadership qualities are pretty similar to leadership traits. This article suggests that you must have: be self-aware, develop others, think strategically, be ethical and practice cross-cultural communication.
13. Bonnell, Sunny & Hansberger, Ashleigh (2023) “9 Traits of Visionary Leaders“, Fast Company
Good article — bad title in my humble opinion. Why? A visionary leader has to exercise imagination. They visualize it before it becomes real. The article title traits described are a better fit for charismatic or transformational leadership. This article talks about:
Compared to what’s going psychology, there is not that much research done in this area lately. One of the problems with the leadership trait approach is the assumption that a particular trait is congruent and appropriate in all situations. To cite one example, integrity is a desirable trait, it works in many situations, but not all. One might have to lie if telling the truth gives another person the ability to harm you.
However, one of the classic articles in this area was done by Ralph Stogdill called, “Personal Factors Associated with Leadership: A Survey of the Literature.” He also summarized the research done on leadership in the 1974 book called the Handbook of Leadership. It was also updated in 1990 by Bass under a slightly different title Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research and Managerial Applications.
Mann, R. D. (1959) ‘A review of the relationship between personality and performance in small groups, Psychological Bulletin 66(4): 241-70.
Stogdill, R. M. (1948) ‘Personal factors associated with leadership. A survey of the literature, Journal of Psychology 25: 35-71.
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Last Update June 20, 2023)