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Leadership Traits and Qualities for Success

Are great leaders born or can they be made? This question has been—and continues to be—a subject of great debate. Competing theories seek to explain whether effective leaders innately possess leadership traits or whether people can be taught the leadership skills necessary to successfully lead others. 

As you might expect, these competing leadership theories have strengths and weaknesses. The debate is further complicated by the fact that everyone’s definition of effective leadership is not necessarily the same.

What is a good leader to you? Your answer might determine the theory you find most compelling. Your idea of top leadership traits might not make another person’s ideal leadership traits list.

If you believe that the ideal leader is capable of leading a team no matter what situation they are placed in, you might be drawn to the Trait Theory of Leadership. If you believe that a person is only a good leader if they learn certain skills, you might be more likely to believe the Behavioral Theory of Leadership.

These theories have fundamental differences, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from both. Knowing more about both these models can help you refine your understanding of what it takes to be a great leader. Let’s take a closer look at the two dominant theories of leadership.

Trait Theory of Leadership

The Trait Theory of Leadership says that certain people possess traits of an effective leader, while others do not. These traits are fixed. It’s important to note that just because you have these traits does not mean you are destined to be a great leader. In this theory, these traits are simply a foundation for an effective leader.

Here are a few trait theory examples of qualities that great leaders must possess

  • Drive – Qualities like motivation, energy, and initiative.
  • Motivation to lead – An inclination to lead others that isn’t solely motivated by a drive for power. 
  • Integrity – An honest and ideal-driven approach to leading others. 
  • Self-confidence – A belief in one’s own decision-making abilities. 
  • Cognitive ability – The capacity to receive and process complex information. 

The above list is full of personality and character traits that are determined at an early age or, some would argue, at birth. Some scholars rely heavily on evaluating the “Big Five” personality traits to determine a leader’s emergence potential. Emergence potential doesn’t necessarily mean that these traits will make a leader effective. It simply means that a person will be more likely to arrive at a leadership position. One analysis suggests the following order of importance of these traits in the emergence of leaders: 

  • Extraversion: This is highly linked to leadership emergence, though introversion does not exclude a person from leadership effectiveness.
  • Conscientiousness: The reflection of which a person is dependable, responsible, perseverant, and achievement-driven. 
  • Openness to experience: Leaders seek out new experiences and are imaginative, broad-minded, and curious. 
  • Neuroticism: Individuals who are more likely than average to be moody. This trait has very little correlation to leadership roles. 
  • Agreeableness: This trait means people are generally warm, friendly, and get along with others. While there is no relevance to leadership emergence,  there is a correlation to leadership effectiveness.

If you believe the Trait Theory of Leadership and run a business, you will likely look for candidates who possess these qualities when hiring for leadership positions. However, before you completely buy into this theory, it’s worth examining the potential limits and dangers of taking this approach. 

One criticism of the trait theory is that many studies have relied heavily on self-reported evaluations. Leaders are asked to provide insights about themselves. This has obvious limitations. A more appropriate and scientific approach is a third-party evaluation by a professionally trained individual to identify personality traits in others. 

Focusing too much on traits when choosing people for leadership positions could also introduce bias into the equation. For example, many qualities people instinctively (and often wrongly) assume are linked to strong leaders are more likely to be exhibited by men. If you pick leaders based solely on certain leadership traits, you could unknowingly introduce cultural biases into the process. In some cases, being aware of these biases can help you refine the list of traits you look for in leaders. 

Behavioral Theory of Leadership

The Behavioral Theory of Leadership focuses on how leaders interact with others and is on the opposite end of the leadership theory spectrum. In the leadership behavior definition, leadership is based less on one’s traits and more on their skills and communication styles.

One of the leading thinkers of this model was Kurt Lewin, an influential social psychologist who pioneered the Behavioral Theory of Leadership. To better understand this theory, we should look at a leadership behaviors list that illustrates the three types of leadership behaviors.

  • The Authoritarian – This leadership style requires giving commands with uncompromised authority. These leaders are unwavering in their demands and often punitive towards team members who don’t follow orders. Lewin called this the autocratic approach to leadership.
  • The Delegator – Leaders who delegate are comfortable trusting others to do their jobs. They know that they can’t do everything themselves. In fact, they take a very hands-off approach. Lewin called this approach Laissez-faire leadership.
  • The Participant – In what Lewin calls the democratic style of leadership, the focus is less on the leader and more on the group’s decisions. A leader might guide the group, but the majority always rules in this approach. 

One leader could potentially be capable of choosing from any of these three styles, depending on which is best for a given group or scenario. For example, the autocratic approach might be best for a military troop, while a democratic approach might be best for a team of researchers. These are frameworks for behavioral approaches to leadership, but they don’t necessarily deal with good or bad leadership behaviors.

To understand the depth of the Behavioral Theory of Leadership, we should also look at three skills that adherents to this theory believe can be developed.

  • Technical skill – Technical skills can be developed by learning more about the specifics of a project or job. For example, the leader of an engineering project can dedicate themselves to learning the specialized knowledge required to oversee the many roles their team is fulfilling. 
  • Human skill – While technical skills relate to dealing with processes or things, human skills relate to dealing with people. Developing this skill requires increasing self-awareness, learning about group dynamics and being aware of each team member’s individual personalities and needs. 
  • Conceptual skill – Conceptual skills are a leader’s ability to see the big picture. Whether it’s delivering a service while being mindful of a budget or coordinating the efforts of several teams to make sure the overall mission is accomplished, conceptual skills are essential for leaders to master.

One of the key selling points of behavioral leadership theory is that most people can find leadership behaviors to improve, both in themselves and the leaders they hire.

7 Leadership Traits of Effective Leaders

Whether we believe leaders are effective because of their traits or the skills they’ve acquired, most of us would agree that there are generally a few qualities that an ideal leader must possess. No head of a team or organization wants to exhibit the qualities of a bad leader, such as obstinance, dishonesty, divisiveness, and inconsistency.

To help you build your own leadership qualities list, here are seven traits associated with leadership:

  • Leaders are motivated. Maybe leaders have always shown ambition, or they’ve acquired it through years of life experience, but effective leaders are nevertheless driven to lead their employees, troops or teams. 
  • Leaders are adaptable. Sometimes leaders need to stay the course with their initial plan, but they also know that plans (and sometimes goals) change. A willingness to change course is a key quality of an effective leader. 
  • Leaders inspire others. Some leaders might motivate others through the respect or loyalty they command. Some motivate others by inspiring them to achieve their own potential. However, most of them find ways to inspire others to act in the best interest of the team’s goal. 
  • Leaders are focused on getting results. Leaders must accomplish their goals to be considered truly effective. A results-oriented approach to leading others is a hallmark of successful leadership. 
  • Leaders take responsibility. The best leaders are comfortable taking responsibility. They are responsible for accomplishing goals, the actions of their team members and the work they put into a project. They also take responsibility when things go wrong. 
  • Leaders learn from failure. If you take risks in life, as most leaders must, you are bound to have setbacks. The most effective leaders don’t let failures define them. Instead, they learn from their failures to improve themselves and their approach to leadership.
  • Leaders are open to advice. Leaders listen to feedback and new ideas. They won’t be intimidated or dismissive of ideas that conflict with their own preconceived notions. The best leaders aren’t so limited by their own egos that they shut out all input from others. 

In his 1978 book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns said that “leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth,” and his words continue to ring true. We all have our own perspective on what it means to be an effective leader. In whatever way you choose to view what makes a great leader, hopefully you can leverage these theories to improve your own leadership traits, behaviors, and attitudes.