What is Trait Theory?

What is Trait Theory?

Trait theory is the granddaddy of modern leadership theories, and basically is the idea that leadership is derived from certain inherent – or inherited – qualities, characteristics, attributes or traits.  In the “nature versus nurture” discussion, trait theory generally adheres to the side of nature (although it does leave room for the development of traits). In the mid-20th century, Ralph Stogdill challenged this model with his research, and leadership study drifted away from trait theory.  In more recent times, however, it seems to have come back into consideration, in a returning emphasis on “the critical role of traits in effective leadership.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 20) In part, this re-emphasis has occurred because evidence indicates that traits do matter; however, a holistic approach to leadership “involves more than specifying leader traits.  Traits only endow people with the potential for leadership.” (Wren, 1995, p. 141)

Trait Theory

From Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice

  • Definition – Trait theory proposes that leadership is differentiated by a specific set of traits, either innate or cultivated
  • Predominant Traits
    • Intelligence – strong verbal ability, perceptual ability, and reasoning
    • Self-confidence – self-esteem, self-assurance, and confidence in one’s skills and competence
    • Determination – initiative, persistence, dominance, and drive
    • Integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, one who is principled and takes responsibility
    • Sociability – friendly, outgoing, courteous, tactful, diplomatic, and pleasant
    • Personality – characteristics including extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, low neuroticism, and agreeableness
    • Emotional Intelligence – the ability to perceive, express, and use emotions to facilitate thinking, to reason and understand with emotions, and to manage emotions within oneself and in relationships


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: insights on leadership through the ages. New York: Free Press.


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