Trait Theory of Personality and Leadership

Let us get back to our management lessons and revisit the much-talked Trait Theory. A trait is a personality characteristic in which a person acts, believe, feels or perceive. Terms such as introvert, extrovert, caring, weak, obsessed etc. are nothing but personality traits used to describe people.

Every individual has more than one trait that forms a personality. The theory designated to identify and measure individual personality characteristics can be defined as Trait Theory.

Below are some of the trait theories that have evolved over the years.

Gordon Allport’s Trait Theory

In the year 1936, psychologist Gordon Allport found that the English language dictionary alone contained more than 4000 words describing different personality traits. He categorized them into 3 levels.

  1. Cardinal traits: Traits that are rare, and dominate tend to define a person to such an extent that their names become synonymous with their personality. Examples: Greedy, Dictator, Narcissism, Christ-like etc.
  2. Central Traits: These are the traits representing major characteristics of a person that lead to the foundation of an individual’s personality. Example: shy, anxious, intelligent, dishonest.
  3. Secondary traits: Secondary traits refer to the general behaviour patterns that only appear under certain circumstances. Some examples include public speaking anxiety, or impatience while waiting in line.

16 Personality Factor Theory

Raymond Cattell, a trait theorist, reduced the number of main personality traits from Allport’s initial list of 4000 to only 16 key personality traits using a statistical technique called factor analysis. According to him, these 16 traits are the source of all human personality.

Universal Trait Theory

British psychologist Hans Eysenck developed a model of personality based upon just three universal traits which according to were sufficient to describe human personality. 

1. Introversion/Extroversion: As per this dimension of theory, a person high in introversion might be quiet and reserved, while an individual high in extroversion might be sociable and outgoing.

2. Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Neuroticism refers to an individual’s tendency to become upset or emotional, while stability refers to the tendency to remain emotionally constant.

3. Psychoticism: Individuals who are high on this trait tend to have difficulty dealing with reality and may be antisocial, hostile, non-empathetic and manipulative, in general, they suffer from some kind of mental illness.

The Big Five Model

After the Cattell’s and Eysenck’s theories been analysed by many theorists, a new theory called “Big Five” emerged. Lewis Goldberg proposed this theory of the five-factor model of personality that represents the five core traits that interact to form a human personality.

1. Openness to Experience: the tendency to be imaginative, independent, and interested in variety vs. practical, conforming, and interested in routine.

2. Conscientiousness: the tendency to be organized, careful, and disciplined vs. disorganized, careless, and impulsive.

3. Extraversion: the tendency to be sociable, fun-loving, and affectionate vs. retiring, sombre, and reserved.

4. Agreeableness: the tendency to be soft-hearted, trusting, and helpful vs. ruthless, suspicious, and uncooperative.

5. Neuroticism: the tendency to be calm, secure, and self-satisfied vs. anxious, insecure, and self-pitying.

Trait Theory and the Leadership

Trait theories can also be applied in management, which help us to distinguish between a leader or a non-leader personalities. A successful leader has certain unique personality traits that are different from those who are less effective in their leadership.

Many researchers have focused their studies on the trait theories to identify the core traits that can define whether a person will be a successful leader or not. However, having these core traits cannot guarantee that a person will be a successful leader as this also depends on other secondary factors also, but these can be considered a precondition to identifying the people with the leadership potential.

Among the core traits identified are:

  • Achievement drive: High level of effort, high levels of ambition, energy and initiative
  • Leadership motivation: An intense desire to lead others to reach shared goals
  • Honesty and integrity: Trustworthy, reliable, and open
  • Self-confidence: Belief in one’s self, ideas, and ability

Top 10 Leadership Skills that Makes an Effective Leader

  • Cognitive ability: Capable of exercising good judgment, strong analytical abilities, and conceptually skilled
  • Knowledge of business: Knowledge of industry and other technical matters
  • Emotional Maturity: Well adjusted, does not suffer from severe psychological disorders.
  • Others: Charisma, creativity and flexibility
10 Best Books

Advantages of Trait Theory

  • This is a naturally pleasing theory.
  • It is valid a lot of research has validated the foundation and basis of the theory.
  • It gives a detailed, knowledge and understanding of the leader element in the leadership process.
Everything worth listening to. All in one place.

Limitations of Trait Theory

  • There is bound, to be some subjective judgement in determining who is regarded as a good or successful leader.
  • The list of possible traits tends to be very long.
  • This theory is very complex.

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