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12.2: Who Is a Leader? Trait Approaches to Leadership

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Learn the position of trait approaches in the history of leadership studies.
    2. Explain the traits that are associated with leadership.
    3. Discuss the limitations of trait approaches to leadership.

    The earliest approach to the study of leadership sought to identify a set of traits that distinguished leaders from nonleaders. What were the personality characteristics and the physical and psychological attributes of people who are viewed as leaders? Because of the problems in measurement of personality traits at the time, different studies used different measures. By 1940, researchers concluded that the search for leadership-defining traits was futile. In recent years, though, after the advances in personality literature such as the development of the Big Five personality framework, researchers have had more success in identifying traits that predict leadership (House & Aditya, 1997). Most importantly, charismatic leadership, which is among the contemporary approaches to leadership, may be viewed as an example of a trait approach.

    The traits that show relatively strong relations with leadership are discussed below (Judge et al., 2002).


    Figure 12.2


    Many observers believe that Carly Fiorina, the ousted CEO of HP, demonstrated high levels of intelligence but low levels of empathy for the people around her, which led to an overreliance on numbers while ignoring the human cost of her decisions (Karlgaard, 2002).

    Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 3.0.

    General mental ability, which psychologists refer to as “g” and which is often called “IQ” in everyday language, has been related to a person’s emerging as a leader within a group. Specifically, people who have high mental abilities are more likely to be viewed as leaders in their environment (House & Aditya, 1997; Ilies, Gerhardt, & Huy, 2004; Lord, De Vader, & Alliger, 1986; Taggar, Hackett, & Saha, 1999). We should caution, though, that intelligence is a positive but modest predictor of leadership, and when actual intelligence is measured with paper-and-pencil tests, its relationship to leadership is a bit weaker compared to when intelligence is defined as the perceived intelligence of a leader (Judge, Colbert, & Ilies, 2004). In addition to having a high IQ, effective leaders tend to have high emotional intelligence (EQ). People with high EQ demonstrate a high level of self awareness, motivation, empathy, and social skills. The psychologist who coined the term emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, believes that IQ is a threshold quality: It matters for entry- to high-level management jobs, but once you get there, it no longer helps leaders, because most leaders already have a high IQ. According to Goleman, what differentiates effective leaders from ineffective ones becomes their ability to control their own emotions and understand other people’s emotions, their internal motivation, and their social skills (Goleman, 2004).

    Big 5 Personality Traits

    Psychologists have proposed various systems for categorizing the characteristics that make up an individual’s unique personality; one of the most widely accepted is the “Big Five” model, which rates an individual according to Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Several of the Big Five personality traits have been related to leadership emergence (whether someone is viewed as a leader by others) and effectiveness (Judge et al., 2002).

    Figure 12.3 Big Five Personality Traits

    Trait Description
    Openness Being curious, original, intellectual, creative, and open to new ideas.
    Conscientiousness Being organized, systematic, punctual, achievement-oriented, and dependable.
    Being outgoing, talkative, sociable, and enjoying social situations. Agreeableness Being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind, and warm. Neuroticism
    Being anxious, irritable, temperamental, and moody.

    Figure 12.4


    Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft Corporation, is an extraverted leader. For example, to celebrate Microsoft’s 25th anniversary, Ballmer enthusiastically popped out of the anniversary cake to surprise the audience.

    Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.