A practical application of the trait approach vs skills approach to Leadership

This paper presents a comparison analysis of the trait approach and skills approach to leadership.  The individual philosophies will be defined and applied to an actual leader.  Strengths and weaknesses of each approach will be discussed and these attributes will be used in assessing the individual’s leadership abilities. Trait approach philosophies will be presented first, followed by skills approach philosophies.  Sheila Murphy is the leader to whom these traits will be applied.

Sheila is a graduate of Temple University with a Health and Physical Education teaching certificate and she obtained her Masters of Education degree from the University of Maryland.  As a college athlete, she honed her leadership skills as captain of both the field hockey and lacrosse teams.  She is an inductee in the Temple University Sports Hall of Fame.  Sheila started her career as a high school Physical Education (PE) teacher and field hockey coach, where she coached two teams to state championships.  After obtaining her principal’s certification, she moved into administration as a grade level assistant principal.  Her ultimate goal was to become the Athletic Director; a goal she attained in 1994.  Sheila became the first female high school Athletic Director in the State of Pennsylvania.

Leadership traits have been studied to determine what makes certain people great leaders (Northouse, 2016, p. 19).  The trait theory, also known as the “great man” theories, focuses on identifying the innate qualities and characteristics possessed by great social, political, and military leaders.  It was believed that people were born with these traits, and that only the “great” people possessed them (Northouse, 2016, p. 19).  Roger Stodgill published a list of 10 characteristics that he felt were essential traits of leadership.  This list includes achievement, persistence, insight, initiative, self-confidence, responsibility, cooperativeness, tolerance, influence and sociability. (Northouse, 2016, p. 21).  From 1959 to 2004 numerous other researches composed varying lists of leadership traits.  From all these lists, a central list of traits emerged including intelligence, self-confidence, determinations, integrity, and sociability (Northouse, 2016, p. 23).

Researchers have found that leaders tend to have higher intelligence than non-leaders, they tend to be faster learners, make better deductions, and are better at developing strategies to make their vision a reality.  Sheila possessed the ability to analyze a situation quickly and succinctly.  She would spend time collecting data and facts from all relevant parties, review possible solutions and alternatives before reaching her conclusion, and then present a solution that seemed to be agreeable to all parties.

Self-confidence is the ability to be certain about one’s competencies and skills.  It includes a sense of self-esteem and self-assurance and the belief that one can make a difference  (Northouse, 2016, p. 24).  Sheila’s self-assurance was ever present.  If there was a situation that needed addressing, Sheila would address it.  She studied policy, procedure, and rule books incessantly, only adding to her self-assurance.

Leaders with determination are willing to assert themselves, be proactive, and have the capacity to persevere in the face of obstacles.  Being determined includes showing dominance at times and in situations where followers need to be directed (Northouse, 2016, p. 25).  Perhaps Sheila’s greatest display of determination occurred when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  She was determined that the disease would not define her and she was going to show dominance over it.  Sheila never missed a single day of work over the course of five years battling the disease.

Integrity is the quality of honesty and trustworthiness.  People who adhere to a strong set of principles and take responsibility for their actions are exhibiting integrity (Northouse, 2016, p. 25).  Sheila is one of those trustworthy individuals.  She instilled confidence in her staff because of her dependability.  There was never a question about her integrity for she never made questionable decisions or presented herself as anything other than professional.

The traits approach to leadership has several strengths and weaknesses.  The strengths include the fact that the people have a need to see their leaders as gifted people, and the trait approach fulfills this need (Northouse, 2016, p. 30).  Trait assessment procedures can be used to offer invaluable information to supervisors and managers about their strengths and weaknesses and ways to improve their overall leadership effectiveness (Northouse, 2016, p. 30).  As a woman working in a field dominated by men, Sheila had to navigate many mine-fields; men’s locker rooms, bus rides with high school sports teams, and much to her dismay, crying girls.  She was a stickler for rules and never excepted excuses.  She never allowed her gender to interfere with her goals; winning sports teams.

The identified weaknesses include the failure of the trait approach to delimit a definitive list of leadership traits (Northouse, 2016, p. 30).  A major weakness of the trait approach is that it focuses exclusively on the leader (Northouse, 2016, p. 29).  Another important identified weakness if the failure to take situations into account.  People who possess certain traits that make them leaders in one situation may not be leaders in another situation (Northouse, 2016, p. 31).  Sheila could take on what appeared to be the most formidable of foes with self-confidence and self-assurance but don’t let a bug enter her world.  One summer day, a series of shrieks emanated from within her office.  Her secretary jumped up and ran to the office only to find Sheila sitting on her desk and pointing at a cockroach on the floor.  Sheila begged her to kill the “f@#$ing thing” and her secretary quickly pointed out that Sheila had on sneakers and she had on open-toed sandals.  This point of information didn’t make a hill-of-beans difference to Sheila; she met a foe that she could not face.  While Sheila could be dominating in many situations, this was one situation in which she vacated her leadership skills.

While the trait approach focuses on the traits possessed by leaders, the skills approach places the emphasis on skills and abilities that can be learned and developed (Northouse, 2016, p. 43).  The skills approach suggests that knowledge and abilities are needed for effective leadership and identifies three basic administrative skills: technical, human, and conceptual (Northouse, 2016, p. 43).

Technical skill is knowledge about and proficiency in a specific type of work or activity.  It includes competencies in a specialized area, analytical ability, and the ability to use appropriate tools and techniques (Northouse, 2016, p. 44).  Sheila honed her technical skills on the collegiate playing field and in her work as a teacher.  When she moved into administrative management, she learned the language of the business world.  In her position, as Athletic Director, she was able to delegate responsibility to her staff for the business processes, but she had a working knowledge of what needed to be accomplished.

Human skill is knowledge about and ability to work with people.  Human skills allow a leader to assist group members in working cooperatively as a group to achieve common goals (Northouse, 2016, p. 45).  They create an atmosphere of trust where employees can feel comfortable and secure and where they can feel encouraged to become involved in the planning of things that will affect them (Northouse, 2016, p. 45).  If it is at all possible, this skill was both a strong point and a weak point with Sheila.  She was a fiercely loyal supervisor, as long as you didn’t do something causing her to lose face.  She did everything in her power to ensure that each team had whatever was needed for success.  Her door was always open to coach, player, or official who has an issue to discuss.  She would provide any assistance possible; however, if one of the myriad of coaches or players did something that could possibly taint the corporate image, she was quick to call that individual on the carpet.

The final element of the skills approach deals with conceptual skills.  A leader with conceptual skills is comfortable talking about the ideas that shape an organization and the intricacies involved (Northouse, 2016, p. 45).  Conceptual skill has to do with the mental work of shaping the meaning of organizational or policy issues – understanding what a company stands for and where it is or should be going (Northouse, 2016, p. 45).  Sheila’s position of Athletic Director made her part of the senior administrative team at the high school level.  Organizational shaping and policy creation and implementation was performed at the district level (a level up from her administrative team).  While she had limited participation in the district level activities, she was a substantial contributor at her building level.  She was instrumental in developing policies and procedures to ensure the success of her student athletes.  She was constantly instructing these athletes on public image and speaking with the media.

Unlike the “great man” approach, which implies that leadership is reserved for only the gifted few, the skills approach suggests that many people have the potential for leadership.  If people are capable of learning from the experiences, they can acquire leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 47).

The skills approach has identified strengths and weaknesses.  To describe leadership in terms of skills makes leadership available to everyone.  Unlike personality traits, skills are competencies that people can learn or develop.  When leadership is framed as a set of skills, it becomes a process that people can study and practice to become better at performing their jobs (Northouse, 2016, p. 58).  The identified weaknesses include the fact that the breadth of the skills approach seems to extend beyond the boundaries of leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 58).  The skills model is weak in predictive value.  It does not explain specifically how variations in social judgment skills and problem-solving skills affect performance; the model can be faulted because it does not explain how skills lead to effective leadership performance (Northouse, 2016, p. 59).

As a leader, Sheila has been the consummate teacher.  She always found the “teachable” moment in each experience.  While she possesses many of the “great leader” traits, she has utilized many of the skills within the skills trait to refine her leadership skills and abilities.  She never welded her power or position over individuals but her experiences and knowledge commanded respect.  She is and always will be my role model.




Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice Seventh Edition. Los Angeles: Sage .



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