Trait-based leadership theories identify personality qualities and characteristics that are effective for leadership when applied properly to a situation (Northouse, 2016). For example, Stogdill identified ten characteristics that were indicative of leadership: drive for success, persistent goal-focus, risk-taking and problem-solving, social initiative, responsibility for consequences, “readiness to absorb interpersonal stress,” stability in the face of frustration, ability to influence others, and the ability to create social interaction structures that facilitate goal attainment (p. 21). Having these personality traits does not mean one is a good leader, it means one may have the capacity to lead. When one applies these skills appropriately in a given situation, they are likely to effectively lead.
Emotional intelligence describes a set of skills and cognition that helps a person identify their own feelings and the likely emotional states of those around them (PSU WC, 2019, L. 2). This intelligence, when applied, allows a person to use emotion in their thinking, reasoning, and understanding; to better express and perceive emotions; and manage and monitor their emotional state (Northouse, 2016). Emotional intelligence and trait leadership have much in common. They both are based on using a set of personality-based traits or skills to understand, navigate, and manage interpersonal situations. Expressing emotions accurately helps leaders communicate more effectively with their followers (PSU WC, 2019, L. 2). For example, a leader who is relaxed and jovial with their followers may not successfully communicate the importance of a new directive by maintaining the same emotional affect. The new directive may seem like usual business or “not a big deal”. Should the leader take on a more serious demeanor or simply change their tone, this may help communicate the seriousness of the message.
Emotional intelligence and empathy are correlated with resilience, the ability to withstand emotionally difficult situations through positive adaptation (Selwyn & Bhuvaneshwari, 2018). Leaders often face situations where they must make difficult decisions like disciplining or correcting followers, hiring or firing, or speaking truth to power. While having the personality traits and skills necessary to navigate these difficult situations, a person lacking emotional intelligence would have a hard time appropriately applying them. Social interactions, like those between leaders and followers, involve feedback through non-verbal communication like facial expressions, body posture, and gestures. Good emotional intelligence allows us to synthesize the messages we are receiving through verbal and non-verbal cues, which enables us to modulate our communication. For example, if a leader is having a corrective conversation with a follower about their performance, communicating the importance of goal-orientation and drive for success, and they ignore signals of anger from their follower, it could lead to worse consequences. A person with poor emotional intelligence may drive harder, trying to convince the follower that they are correct whereas a person with better emotional intelligence may ask questions about their reaction. It could lead to underlying problems or weaknesses on the team.
Emotional intelligence is the governor of trait-based leadership. The traits described by Stodgill are powerful and used unchecked can cause serious damage. Leaders should spend time working on their emotional intelligence skills, remembering that follower feedback is critical to effective leadership.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed. ). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 2: Trait approach. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/02_lesson/printlesson.html