Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Coventry University's online course, Leadership Theory: The Basics. Join the course to learn more.

Trait approach

This approach assumes that some individuals are born with certain traits and physical, social and personal characteristics that differentiate them from non-leaders (Allen 1998).

Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) argued that key leadership traits include:

  • Drive a broad term which includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity and initiative
  • Leadership motivation the desire to lead but not to seek power as an end in itself
  • Honesty, integrity and self-confidence which is associated with emotional stability
  • Cognitive ability and knowledge of the business

Northouse (2013) added other traits such as emotional maturity, charisma and creativity.

Ekvall and Arvonen (1991) divided traits into two categories:

  • Emergent traits: these are dependent upon heredity, such as height, intelligence, attractiveness and self-confidence

  • Effectiveness traits: these can be learned or developed with experience, such as intelligence, charisma, communication skills and commercial awareness

It is important to note that some traits can make a leader more successful, but no traits can guarantee success. For example, Max Weber, as cited by Burns (2003), argued that height and physical attractiveness have little significance and instead, charisma is needed to be a successful leader because it is:

The greatest revolutionary force, capable of producing a completely new orientation through followers and complete personal devotion to leaders they perceived as endowed with almost magical supernatural, superhuman qualities and powers.

Max Weber, cited by Burns (2003)


Northouse (2013) identified the following:

  • Supports the general notion that leaders are special and gifted people with special traits
  • Is one of the oldest leadership theories with some credibility based on the significant body of research data that supports it
  • Provides some benchmarks for what to look for in a leader


  • Suggests that leaders have some unique traits that differentiate them from their followers
  • Not been able to identify a fixed definitive list of leadership traits and the list that has emerged is exhaustive and endless
  • Limits the opportunity to teach leadership as it claims that traits are fixed psychological structures

Your task

This theory argues that leaders have some unique traits that differentiate them from their followers. If that is the case, then how come some people possess these qualities but are not leaders? Furthermore, why do people with leadership traits become leaders in some situations but not others?

Do these questions indicate the limitations of using trait theories to explain leadership?

Share your points of view in the comments section below. Compare your ideas with some of your fellow learners’ suggestions and discuss any similarities or differences.


Allen, D.W. (1998) ‘How Nurses Become Leaders: Perceptions and Beliefs about Leadership’ Journal of Nursing Administration 28, 9, 15-20

Burns, J. M (2003) Transforming Leadership. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

Kirkpatrick, S.A., Locke, E.A. (1991) ‘Leadership: Do Traits Matter’. Academy of Management Executive 5, 48-60

Northouse, P. (2013)  Leadership: Approach and practice 6th edn. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publishing

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Leadership Theory: The Basics

Coventry University