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Trait Theory of Leadership

The trait theory of leadership isn’t new. It is the first modern theory ever postulated, as far as leadership is concerned. Leadership itself is a demanding activity, and only a few persons turn out to be good leaders. Their work speaks highly of their performance. Without being told, you can determine whether they are a good fit for the leadership position they are occupying or not.

The trait theory of leadership seeks to answer essential questions on why some individuals make good leaders, and others do not. Read to learn more about this topic!

Theory of Leadership

What is The Trait Theory of Leadership About?

Before we go further to explain the key characteristics of this leadership theory, it will make sense to explain what the term implies.

Every society that is functioning well is doing so because they have a good leader. The good leader, in this case, does not imply that the person offers freebies to his or her subject. Of course, there are changes you will come across that will enable you to understand the impact the individual leading is making.

A good leader should have the right leadership quality or traits. Traits, in this sense, means habits, actions, or characteristics that make an individual suitable for something. Now here’s what the trait theory of leadership claims;

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The theory claims that leaders are born! As a result of this belief, there’s a high chance that individuals that possess the right traits and qualities are better positioned to become leaders or take up leadership positions. Also, keep in mind that the trait theory tries to identify behavioral characteristics commonly displayed by leaders or those in varied leadership positions

Thomas Carlyle’s leadership theory, called the trait theory of leadership, was the first among its kind, postulated, and made famous, starting from the twentieth century. It developed out of the so-called great man theory, which Thomas Carlyle popularized in the 80s.

Thomas Carlyle was a renowned teacher and Scottish philosopher. In the olden days, precisely the 1840s, Carlyle gave a series of lectures focused on leadership. What also made his claim more popular and widely accepted by those under his tutelage, was the citation of influential figures in the society. He gave examples of leaders in the society that displayed exceptional poetic abilities. Examples include Napoleon, Mohammad, and even Shakespeare.

Extraordinary leaders indeed shape history. The reverse is the case when a society is headed by a leader considered unfit for the position. For someone like the great philosopher, Carlyle, leadership is an ability only a handful of people possess. And those born with it are the ones that deliver extraordinary results when elected, appointed, selected, or, however, the case may be.

Carlyle didn’t believe that leadership traits aren’t something one can develop out of the blue. His work also inspired other researches on leadership, with many of them focusing on inheritable traits.

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Leadership Traits That Leaders Exhibit

There is a myriad of characteristics, and the list keeps increasing now and then as it passes through the hands of various theorists. However, the trait theory hasn’t been wholeheartedly adopted. The reason is that a leader can perform better in a specific situation and flop when he or she faces another.

By and large, we are still going to consider the leadership traits, which are the credentials or recipe for good leadership. The traits include:

  • Energetic
  • Confidence
  • Flexibility
  • Charisma
  • Tenacity
  • Initiative
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Excellent cognitive skills
  • Knowledge of the business

So, you can see how broad the list is. Now let’s break down some of these points for better understanding and appreciation of this theory.


Is there’s one thing good leaders aren’t lacking, it’s energy! Leaders are filled with energy. They can work long hours and get tasked done to an acceptable level. They may not necessarily overwork themselves but can spend late nights and deny themselves some outings unless they have achieved their goals.

Leaders also don’t need external motivation to get things done. They are self-motivated, and this trait differentiates them from non-leaders.


A leader without confidence will hardly make any positive impact. When he or she speaks, the followers know there’s no solution, even if they are told otherwise. But a good leader exudes confidence in whatever he or she does. When such a leader says it’s time to move, the followers obey because they know that the leader knows what he or she is doing.

So, confidence and the ability to show it, irrespective of the number of followers or situation, is one trait that separates a leader from a non-leader.


A leader needs to be flexible to adapt to different changes. A resilient leader is also likely to remain relevant for an extended period and work with people without having issues. So flexibility is an essential trait in leadership, which can also impact the performance of the leader.

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So the rest traits are what they seem. They are traits inborn in leaders, which, according to the trait theory, are impossible for a non-leader to develop.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Trait Theory: Things You Need To Know

It is essential to understand that there exist the strengths and weaknesses of this popular theory. Let’s look at them for a better understanding of the trait theory.

The Strengths

1. The Theory Was Supported by Numerous Research:

A lot of researchers were inspired by the trait theory and conducted their personal research. However, their findings made them believe and support the idea that leadership traits are inborn.

2. Offers Criteria for the Identification of Suitable Leaders

The theory gave qualities a leader must possess, thus making it easier to identify individuals that will make a good fit as leaders. The only thing is that some of these traits can be nurtured in specific individuals, as opposed to the idea that leadership traits are inborn.

The Weaknesses

1. The Theory Has a Long List of Traits

Although the theory has enjoyed widespread acceptance, the primary issue it is facing is the bucket list of traits. Hence, they have been several criticisms that the theory is somewhat general.

2. Focuses Wholly on The Leader

The trait theory never factored in situations, so it cannot be the basis for separating two leaders. A leader may perform well in a specific position or condition and may perform poorly in another. The followers can also play a significant role in making the leader’s job easier or difficult. Some subjects are super easy to lead, and some are quite difficult.

About Sonia Kukreja

I am a mother of a lovely kid, and an avid fan technology, computing and management related topics. I hold a degree in MBA from well known management college in India. After completing my post graduation I thought to start a website where I can share management related concepts with rest of the people.