11 Articles on Leadership Traits

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous 'V' sign.
Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous ‘V’ sign.

by Murray Johannsen. (Updated November 11, 2016). Feel free to connect with the author by  Linkedin,  Google+  or by  email.

Traits define leaders behaviors. Good ones make for great leaders. Discover what different experts say leaders should possess

What are Leadership Traits?

This page focuses on the desired traits of leaders. You might ask though, about the difference betweens traits and styles.

A trait is a stable set of personality characteristics that get expressed across many (but not all situations). So, if you have the right leadership traits, people will perceive you as a leader.

A style, though, is based on the context or the situation that you find yourself in. In fact, there are at least 18 different types of styles from which to choose. So with styles, flexibility is the name of the game.

In this case, you would follow the advice of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who wrote in Meditations“Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” 

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:

  1. 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.

    10 Articles On Desirable Leadership Traits

    1. Hooper, Michael (2007). Culture and Leadership Effectiveness. Online .pdf document

    It’s reasonable to assume that certain personality traits are helpful in projecting leadership. Yet, you can have both narcissistic leaders and humble ones – two opposite traits. Also, certain traits are more important in some cultures but less important in others. For example, Americans are more narcissistic while the Chinese are more humble.

    One can exercise stellar leadership in France, yet fail miserably in Japan. Still, it’s thought that there are certain leadership traits that are universal across all cultures — thus the importance of the GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) studies.

    According to GLOBE research, there are ten major cultural clusters operating in the world today.

    See: Globe Cultural Traits and Clusters

    And the same body of research has led to a list of 21 “universal” traits. There is also a set of cultural traits that are not universal, but dependent on a particular culture. The importance of this cannot be over estimated since many expats fail for the very reasons this study makes obvious. 

    2. A Master List of Leadership Traits from the American Library Association

    This 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.

    3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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

6. 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.

7. 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

8. 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

9. Six Personality Traits of a Leader

This list reflect a military perspective, so it can be more appropriate to military leadership traits, rather than characteristics seen in the broader population.

Five that do include:

    • Ambition
    • Tenacity
    • Self-Confidence
    • Realism
    • Openness to experience
    • Appetite for learning.

10. Snead, Mark (N.D.). The Five Most Important Leadership Traits, Leadership501.com

Of course no study on traits list would be complete without an article talking about, “The most important ones.” I’m sure each of us have our favorites. Snead says they are:

• Honest
• Forward-Looking
• Competent
• Inspiring
• Intelligence

It’s actually a pretty good list of traits. The only problem is with the last one. The author implies that you can become more intelligent by your own efforts. This is doubtful. Sure you can fill your mind full of expertise, but this is the same thing as IQ.

Remember, that IQ is genetically determined–you either got it or you don’t. It is unlikely that you can dramatically improve what you already have. BUT, you can get a great deal of traction by learning emotional intelligence (EQ).

Access The Article

11. Farrall, Rachel (2011). 23 Traits of Good Leaders. CNN.com

This is a nice starting point for looking at yourself and trying to figure out what your traits are. The article has 23 suggested by experts who are at least savvy enough to get a book published.

The article is kind of weird since it first starts out talking about a leadership style as if it were that same thing as a trait. Otherwise, it’s not too bad.

Access the 23 Traits Article

References On Leadership 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.

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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