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Are people born leaders? Debunking the trait theory of leadership
You might’ve heard the phrase “a born leader.”
If you look at history, some of the world’s most prominent leaders may share some common traits. Most effective leaders have confidence, strong decision-making skills, and are good with people. Most great leaders have strong interpersonal skills, high emotional intelligence, and assertiveness. At a quick glance, it might make you think that leaders are born, not developed.
The trait theory of leadership is a concept that leaders are born with distinct characteristics. In other words, leaders have inheritable traits. Early research introduced that this theory of leadership innately lives within certain people.
But here’s where the controversy begins. Are certain people born leaders? Are potential leaders only those who are born with key characteristics or traits?
At BetterUp, we believe that everyone has the ability to reach their full potential. A big part of self-actualization is building skills, investing in personal development, and growing as a whole person.
So, while the trait theory of leadership might sound like an easy way to solve your leadership problems, does it actually hold truth? What sort of leadership models can you count on to develop leaders in your organization? Are people really born leaders?
Let’s dig into what defines the trait theory of leadership. We’ll also talk about some key leadership traits you can develop — and debunk some myths about trait leadership.
What is the trait theory of leadership?
Before we get into the validity of the trait theory of leadership, let’s understand it.
What is the trait theory of leadership?
The trait theory of leadership is the concept that leaders are born with key characteristics or traits. Researcher Thomas Carlyle first proposed the theory in the 1800s.
The trait theory of leadership is also referred to as the Great Man Theory of Leadership, which was studied by researcher Thomas Carlyle. When we look at Carlyle’s body of research, it’s not empirically validated. While it’s one of the oldest theories of leadership, the research was simply not vetted before the theory took off.
When Carlyle first introduced this theory, he looked at popular historical figures. For example, he compared leaders (all men) like Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The conclusion was drawn that these “great leaders” were born with innate characteristics of leadership. And while it’s undeniable that these leaders, on paper, share many of the same set of traits, the concept hasn’t stood the test of time.
At BetterUp, we’ve studied how leadership qualities can be developed. And science tells us that the trait theory of leadership has its flaws. But before we get too deep into whether or not the theory has legs to stand on, let’s look at some of the key leadership traits.
What are some of the leadership traits?
While we know that today, the trait theory of leadership doesn’t hold much weight, there are key leadership qualities that we can identify. Here are 10 leadership skills that good leaders possess:
- Future-mindedness. A future-minded leader is a leader who approaches each situation with a sense of pragmatism and optimism. At BetterUp, we’ve studied the effectiveness of future-mindedness.
Leaders who practice future-mindedness have higher-performing teams. They also have teams with increased agility, engagement, innovation, risk-taking, performance, and resilience.
But better yet? Our survey of 1,500+ US workers found that 82% of people have significant room for improvement in at least one area of future-minded leadership skills. People aren’t born future-minded. It’s a skill to learn and develop.
- Inclusive leadership skills. We’ve also studied inclusive leadership and its impact on the workforce. In fact, we’ve found that employees are 50% more productive, 90% more innovative, and 150% more engaged when they have inclusive leaders. Inclusive leadership also results in 54% lower employee turnover.
- High emotional intelligence. Successful leaders often have invested in their emotional intelligence. Like many other leadership skills, emotional intelligence can be built with the right type of practice.
According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, 90% of people receive promotions and improve their skills due to emotional intelligence.
- Emotional regulation skills. The ability to keep cool matters more than you think. In fact, when I think back to some of Carlyle’s list of great leaders, this is one key skill that seems to be lacking.
But looking at today’s great leaders, emotional regulation skills are a non-negotiable. In the face of adversity, conflict, and uncertainty, it’s important for any leader to have emotional stability.
- Strong interpersonal skills. Leaders, especially in today’s workforce, are constantly working with people. Whether it’s cross-functional communication or collaborating with team members, strong interpersonal skills are a must-have.
It takes practice to be able to build this skill set. Of course, based on personality types, some folks may be more inclined to collaborate and work with people than others.
I’m a self-proclaimed introvert that has invested a lot of time in building my interpersonal skills. Through working with my coach, I’ve learned how to build rapport and strong connections with others.
- High cognitive agility and cognitive ability. Our world is changing — fast. That means the world of work is constantly faced with challenges and tough problems that we probably haven’t encountered before.
High cognitive ability and cognitive agility are needed to help navigate solving tough problems. This is especially important in today’s environment where things can pivot quicker than ever before.
- Strong decision-making skills. If you’re a leader, you know that decisions come across your desk (or laptop) daily. And as the future of work has changed, the number of decisions has accelerated.
For any leader, it’s important to invest in building strong decision-making skills. A lot of times, self-confidence and strong decision-making skills go hand-in-hand.
our leaders may not always make the right decisions — but that’s OK. It’s also good for leaders to know when learning from failure is more important than getting things right 100% of the time. A transformational leader can learn from the mistakes of decisions they’ve made.
- Strong communication skills. With collaboration must also come communication. Great leaders are able to effectively convey their goals and expectations.
Communication plays such a crucial role in organizational performance. It's also a critical component of building strong coaching skills as a leader. Effective leaders, however, often work on their communication skills. And with the rise of hybrid and remote work, communication skills are more important than ever.
- Ability to resolve conflicts well. Workplace conflict is inevitable. After all, we’re human. We disagree. It’s part of how we solve tough problems. In fact, conflict doesn’t have to be harmful. Sometimes, conflict helps teams arrive at the right solution.
How you navigate that conflict is critically important. And great leaders, despite Carlyle’s list of historical (and somewhat tyrannical) figures, shouldn’t bulldoze over others. Respectful conflict resolution skills help strengthen connections and relationships. It builds interpersonal skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills.
- High motivation. Effective leadership is powered by motivation. In fact, high motivation is a key leadership behavior that many have to develop.
And motivation doesn’t mean you work until you exhaust yourself. In fact, quite the opposite. Good leaders know when it’s important to rest. Great leaders hold the power of Inner Work® in their back pocket to be able to better motivate their teams.
Effective leadership starts with knowing what motivates your team. Every company operates differently. But look holistically at your total rewards programs. This means taking a close look at the purpose of work, employee incentives, benefits, and compensation.
What are some pros and cons of the trait leadership theory?
While we’re not all born with personal characteristics that may innately make us great leaders, there are some pros and cons. Here are nine pros and cons to consider when looking at this leadership style.
3 pros of the trait leadership theory
- It kickstarted the study of leadership and leadership behaviors. While the majority of leaders don’t believe in the trait leadership theory, it did kick off the study of leadership.
- It helped to establish leader traits that leaders can improve upon. This was the first body of research that looked at key leadership characteristics and traits. While possessing leadership skills from birth isn’t founded on science, it helped identify which skills can be built upon.
- It helped identify that personality traits can be studied and researched. Similar to leadership traits, it also helped establish that scientists can study and research personality traits.
6 cons of the trait leadership theory
- The theory wrongly assumed that leadership effectiveness is something you’re born with. The biggest con of the theory is that it’s not empirically validated. It's not a valid, science-backed theory.
So, if you’re promoting employees based on the fact they possess certain skills with the idea that they were born with said skills, you might want to rethink your approach.
- It puts forward a false behavioral theory about leadership roles. Putting people in leadership roles based on the idea that they’re born with certain behaviors can be dangerous.
Without the proper development and coaching support, you risk falling into situational leadership. And situational leadership doesn’t help unlock your team’s full potential.
- It hinders the growth and development of your leaders. For any company looking to develop effective leaders, it requires an investment in their growth and development.
But adopting the trait leadership theory insinuates that you don’t need to make that investment, which simply isn’t true.
- It doesn’t empower your workforce to reach its full potential. If you are skipping out on coaching your employees into leadership roles, think about all of that potential you’re leaving on the table. Your employees want to learn, develop, and grow.
- It can breed a toxic style of leadership within your organization. Putting non-leaders in leadership roles based on personality traits can be toxic. Everyone needs support, even your best of leaders.
But without the right support, you can risk breeding toxic traits in your workforce. Consider how BetterUp can help bring out the best in your workforce with virtual coaching.
- It can enforce a more transactional leadership style as opposed to a transformational leadership style. While there’s a time and place for transactional leadership, it’s not the best leadership style for maximum impact.
10 examples of trait theory of leadership
Many researchers went on to study Carlyle’s initial theory of trait leadership. One such researcher was Ralph Stogdill, who took Carlyle’s study as a jumping point to looking into this trait approach.
Let’s look at some of Stogdill’s research to help identify some examples of trait theory leadership. Stogdill conducted a survey that identified traits that were positively associated with leadership. These include:
- The drive for responsibility and completing tasks
- Vigor and persistence to pursue goals
- Ability to take risks and problem-solve
- Take the initiative (especially in social situations)
- Self-confidence and a strong sense of identity
- Willingness to accept ownership and consequences of decisions and/or actions
- Willingness to absorb and own interpersonal stress
- Tolerates frustration and delays
- Ability to influence others and their behavior
- The ability to structure social interaction systems with a purpose
You’ll notice these are all positive traits that are found in many leaders. But these traits are skills that people can build, especially with the help of coaching.
Use BetterUp to build better leaders
If your organization struggles to keep people in leadership positions, consider coaching. With BetterUp, you can invest in the growth and development of your leaders.
With a coach as their guide, your managers can be well-equipped to navigate all that future holds — even if we’re uncertain about it. Our science-backed approach to building mental fitness has been proven to lower stress, increase purpose, and increase resilience after just four months of leadership training.
The City of Santa Monica looks at leadership through the lens of growth. In fact, Lori Gentiles, chief people officer, City of Santa Monica, talks about investing in people leadership with BetterUp help their employees thrive.
Think about all the potential within your organization. What’s stopping you from tapping into it?
If it’s an unspoken expectation that leaders come ready-made, know that perspective may be limiting your organization’s — and employee’s — growth.
No matter how naturally charismatic, intuitive, or confident a person seems to be, it doesn’t indicate that they’re prepared to lead others. Every person can be a leader with the right coaching and support.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.