Leadership Traits

Why There Is No Universal List Of Leadership Traits

In psychology, a trait is a stable characteristic–potentially lasting throughout one’s entire life. Coming up with an exact list set of leadership traits is difficult due to:

Culture. What works in the West does not work in the East, a trait that works in France will be less successful in America.

Context. What trait is appropriate depends on the context one finds oneself.

Paradox. Leadership is paradoxical. It defies logic due to unconscious factors and emotions.

Means and Ends. Leadership is both a means when it focuses on process and behaviors and an end when leaders focuses on goals and outcomes.

Having said that an exact list in impossible to come up with, does not mean that leadership traits are not important in leadership development. It simply means that different experts will come up with different lists, so a certain amount of confusion will need to be tolerated.

It’s reasonable to assume that certain personality traits are associated with leadership, while others are not. Below are articles which talk about traits associated with leadership success and failure.

Six Articles On Leadership Traits

A Master List of Leadership Traits from the American Library Association

The article lists seven categories: physical, emotional, social, intellectual/intelligence, communication, experience, and trustworthy. Technically, some of what is listed is really classified as skills (communication) while experience is not really a trait at all. Good to look over, the first two categories contain more traits.

Some of the more interesting ones from the first two are: the physical and emotional:

Self-Confidence. This on tends to be a key factor. It’s been said the leaders might be wrong but are never in doubt.

High Energy Levels. One that rarely makes peoples but is incredibly important and almost impossible to quantify. Successful leaders are driven, they are ambitious and possess an abundant fountain of motivation which does not end.

Stress Tolerance. Honestly, been in a leadership role is stressful. It much safer to be follower, since you can hide in the pack. Of course, one can also argue that this is a state of mind and a skill that one can develop.

2. The Seven Traits of Skillful Leadership

This article emphasizes the importance of refining your leadership traits along seven dimensions. It assumes that traits of leadership must be neither too hot or too cold, neither too strong or too weak. For example, one should learn to be:


    • Strong and not rude;
    • Kind but not weak;
    • Bold but not a bully,
    • Humble but not timid;
    • Proud but not arrogant;
    • Humorous but not silly.

3. Air Force Leadership (AFP-35-49)

Military organizations, more than most corporations, devote a tremendous amount of time, money and effect in developing their leaders. One can do well by managing during the good times, but dealing with crisis and adversity is still the forte of the great leader.

The document and another one on leadership traits contains some interesting traits, ones the ultimately can become organizational values. Traits mentioned in the article include:

    • Integrity,
    • Loyalty (up and down),
    • Commitment,
    • Decisiveness,
    • Energy , and
    • Selflessness.

Additionally, you will find a number of leadership principles to keep in mind. Definitely a keeper.

4. Leadership Traits According to the SBA

Leadership traits are a subset of personality traits. According to Raymond Cattell, a pioneer in the field of personality assessments, good leaders have these personality characteristics.

    • Emotional stability
    • Enthusiasm
    • Conscientiousness
    • Tough-mindedness
    • Self-assurance
    • Compulsiveness
    • Dominance

5. Fourteen Marine Leadership Traits

If there is any organization where effective leadership must be cultivated and developed, it is the military. While the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines do not agree on a common list of traits, one can assume that one is doing something right if one has followers who exhibit respect, confidence, and loyal cooperation.

6. Beware The Bad Leader: Seven Traits of Bad Leadership

Unfortunately for us all, bad leaders occupy positions of power in business and government. The article is a summary of a book on the same subject. In this case, the seven deadly leadership traits include being:

    • Incompetent,
    • Rigid,
    • Intemperate,
    • Callous,
    • Corrupt,
    • Insular, and
    • Evil

7. Choosing Good and Poor Executive Leaders

One sees it over and over, large corporations are really not the good at choosing the next CEO. And in fact, it seems that some formerly great companies have become very good at putting the wrong person into the big chair. All of us no doubt have our own pet reasons why that is. One of mine is that interviews are an extremely poor method of predicting job performance. This article lists seven must have traits (notice, one is not getting an MBA or a JD.) Many of these are leadership traits and traits of personality.

    • Integrity
    • Passion
    • Courage
    • Vision
    • Judgement
    • Emotional intelligence
    • Empathy

Psychological Traits And Leadership Traits

Most of the time, the traits that research psychology uses to describe our personality do not correlate well with the ones used by the experts who focus exclusively on leadership traits, rather than characteristics seen in the broader population.

Five that do include:

    • Intelligence
    • Adjustment
    • Extraversion
    • Conscientiousness
    • Openness to experience
    • General self-efficacy.

Management Research On Traits

Compared to what’s going psychology, there is not that much research done in this area lately. One of the problems with the leadership trait approach is an assumption that a particular trait is congruent and appropriate in all situations. To cite on example, integrity is a desireable trait, it works in many situations, but not all. One might have to lie if telling the truth gives an other person the ability to harm you.

However, one of the classic articles in this area was done by Ralph Stogdill called, “Personal Factors Associated with Leadership: A Survey of the Literature.” He also summarized the research done on leadership in the 1974 book called the Handbook of Leadership. It was also updated in 1990 by Bass under a slightly different title Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research and Managerial Applications.

 References On Leadership Traits

Mann, R. D. (1959) ‘A review of the relationship between personality and performance in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin 66(4): 241-70.

Stogdill, R. M. (1948) ‘Personal factors associated with leadership. A survey of the literature, Journal of Psychology 25: 35-71.


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