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Trait theory vs process theory

What is the difference between the trait theory and process theory of leadership? This article dives into both.

Early ideas about leadership, described by the Great Man theory, focused on the innate qualities of individuals. In the 1950s, leadership theory focused on the situational interaction of traits, then in the 1970s personality and behaviour dominated.

The current theory, known as trait theory, focuses on five major leadership traits of intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability.

Trait theory

The trait theory of leadership suggests that certain inborn or innate qualities and characteristics make someone a leader.

These qualities might be personality factors, physical factors, intelligence factors and so on. In essence, trait theory proposes that the leader and leaders’ traits are central to an organisation’s success. The assumption here is that finding people with the right traits will increase organisational performance.

Trait theory focuses exclusively on the leader and neglects the follower.

The leader has particular leadership traits such as height, intellect, extraversion, fluency and others that influence the followers

Adapted from Kotter (1990: 3-8)

Applying the trait theory

One of the applications of the trait approach is that by participating in various tests, candidates can benchmark and assess how strong or weak they are in terms of leadership skills.

In doing so, this can provide direction for future action plans. Based on this theory, tools and instruments have been developed that enable individuals to appraise their potential to better their performance.

Some organisations use personality tests to find the ‘right’ people with the ‘right’ traits, using tools such as the Myers Briggs test and Leadership Trait Questionnaire (LTQ).

Process theory

In contrast, process leadership suggests that leadership is an event that depends on the interaction between the leader and the follower.

Process theory makes leadership available to everyone, rather than restricting it to people with special qualities only. As a process it can be observed, learned and trained (Northouse 2018: 7).

The process theory suggests that leadership is an interaction between leader and followers

Adapted from Kotter (1990: 3-8)


Kotter, J.P. (1990) A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management. New York: Free Press, 3-8

Northouse, P.G. (2018) Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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