What is the Trait Theory of Leadership? Definition and Characteristics

What is Trait Theory of Leadership?

The trait theory of leadership is one of the earliest leadership approaches which assumes that a good leader is born and not made. It emphasizes the born leaders are the best. This approach helps to classify what traits are necessary to be a good leader and what is not.

It differentiates who are good leaders and who are non-leaders through their possessed qualities. To be a leader a person needs to own some leadership qualities. It is concerned with, the great man theory of leadership, first introduced by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. Trait theory emphasized that a person is born with the necessary traits of leadership.

The trait approach of leadership also believes that leadership qualities can be obtained. This approach considers leadership as a set of qualities possessed by an individual. Leadership qualities may be inherent or they may be earned by higher education, training, and practice.

Different leaders have different qualities and lead in different styles. Various researchers identified different traits of good leaders. Some researchers on trait theory emphasize intelligence, initiative, self-confidence, and individuality being the superior ability of leadership.

Other researchers stress intelligence, scholarship, dependability, responsibility, social participation, and socio-economic status as the requisites of leadership.

However, some common necessary traits required for successful leadership are intelligence, initiative, imagination, optimism, enthusiasm, courage, creativity, originality, communicative ability, self-confidence, human understanding, and a sense of fair play.

Ralph Stogdill, a leadership scholar, suggested that effective leaders can be seen as having a strong drive of responsibility, task orientation, originality, problem-solving skill, drive to exercise initiative in social situations, self-confidence, sense of identity, and ability to influence other persons.

Edwin Ghiselli has done research on the effectiveness of leadership. He studied over 300 hundred managers from 90 different companies and suggested personality traits classifying very important to non-important to become a successful leader.

Related: What is Autocratic Leadership? Definition, Features, Types, Examples, and Pros/Cons

Ghiselli’s suggested very important leadership traits are decisiveness, intellectual capacity, job achievement orientation, self-actualization feelings, self-confidence, and management ability-team builder. And moderately important traits are drive and initiative, need for a lot of money, need for job security, and personal maturity.

Six Characteristics Trait Theory of Leadership

In the trait theory of leadership, the researchers suggested that there are six major leadership traits that differentiate leaders from non-leaders.

Related: Managerial Grid Theory of Leadership


The drive is the quality of leaders that exhibit leaders high level of effort, high desire for achievement, high ambition, lots of energy, tirelessly persistent, and ability to take initiatives that differentiate leaders from non-leaders.

Desire To Lead

It is the willingness of leaders to lead. A successful leader must have a strong desire to influence and lead others. Leaders are ready to assume responsibilities.

Honesty and Indignity

Leaders must show honest behaviors to their followers, build strong relationships with them, tell the truth, and act rationally so that there can be a strong mutual bond between leaders and followers. Understand the follower’s needs and requirements and act accordingly.


It is the ability of the leaders to be stable in their emotions, actions, and decisions. They must have the ability to build confidence in followers encouraging them they can do their best.


It is the cognitive ability of the leaders to handle a large amount of information effectively, make the right decisions, and ability to create a vision into reality.

Job Relevant Knowledge

Leaders must have knowledge about the organizational structure and technical matters of their organization, in order to make the right decisions that are acceptable to all the parties for the growth of the business.

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