Leadership Traits: What matters the most?
The phenomenon of leadership is one of the most wildly studied and most interesting facets of our human makeup. One of the main questions revolving around the subject of leadership is what “makes” a leader. Can leaders be trained, or are leaders born with certain traits, or characteristics, that make them “natural” leaders? If leaders are in-fact born with specific leadership traits, which of these traits are most important, and are these traits consistently displayed across those considered to be leaders? Will a natural “born leader” be effective in every situation? I suggest that leadership is both a combination of inherited traits for the emergence of leadership, and the application of effective leadership practices for the sustainability and effectiveness of leaders.
In my personal experience, I feel that leadership occurs in phases. The first phase is the emergence of a leader. “Leader emergence is defined as both an individual’s completion of leader-like work duties and occupying positions of leadership or authority either within or outside of the work domain” (Reichard et al, 2011). Leadership emergence can happen naturally, such as a player on a soccer field taking control of the on-the-field play. Conversely, leadership can also occur mechanically, such as in the cases of a workplace promotion. In both cases, there is the initial recognition by a group of “followers” that a leader has emerged. Certain traits have been found to correlate with the natural emergence of leadership, such as what are known as the “Big Five Personality Factors”. These five factors are: low neuroticism, high extraversion, and positive tendencies towards openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness (Northouse, 2016). Meta-analysis supports that leadership emergence positively correlates with extraversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness as predictors of emergence (Judge et al, 2002). Extraversion is the factor most positively associated with leadership (Northouse, 2016). Witnessing leaders emerging happens to us throughout our lives, however this instance of emergence has nothing to do with whether or not the leader will be ultimately successful. “Leader emergence, rather than effectiveness, is often a product of others’ perceptions of an individual’s abilities” (Reichard et al, 2011). Emergence does not equal effectiveness. Leadership effectiveness does not merely exist through titles or rank, it is a continuous cycle between leaders and followers of expectations and performance. Naturally, leadership effectiveness will be ultimately judged by those in the position of followers. An ineffective leader can fade as quickly in the minds of their followers just as quickly as they’d previously emerged.
Though leaders may possess the traits to emerge, they may not always be successful. Situational factors may exist that may support or limit the effectiveness of leaders. Northouse (2016) notes that “people who possess certain traits that make them leaders in one situation may not be leaders in another situation. Some people may have the traits that help them emerge as leaders but not the traits that allow them to maintain their leadership over time” (p. 30). Once leadership emerges, certain other traits must take precedence for a leader to transition into effectiveness. Once in the leadership position, “followers” are looking towards the leader to demonstrate additional capacities which can help further their interests greater than they can perform alone. While the emergent leadership traits are still important for effectiveness, other leadership traits such as intelligence start to come into play. I believe that it is important when considering intelligence to note that there is a difference between emotional intelligence and rational intelligence. Rational intelligence is useful for learning skills of a specific job. Recent studies suggest that emotional intelligence, or being “sensitive to their emotions and to the impact of their emotions on others” is a predictor of leadership effectiveness (Northouse, 2016, p. 39). In my own experience, rational intelligence can predict the effectiveness of a supervisor or manager, where understanding technical aspects of a job are important for effectiveness in that role. Managers, however, are not always “leaders”. In the video Personality Development Skills – Leadership Skills (2010), it is noted “to be a good leader it is critical to distinguish between the ability to perform and the ability to lead a performance”. Leaders possess the emotional intelligence to be able to understand the emotions of their teams, know what motivates them to perform, and wrest their team’s maximum performance.
The big five personality traits are important in the emergence of leadership, and other leadership traits come into play for the sustainability of effective leadership. However, the lack of or absence of any one of the big five personality traits does not necessarily mean that a person cannot be an effective leader. Though extroversion is a high predictor of leadership emergence and effectiveness, I have known many introverts that are effective leaders of their teams. While traits are important factors for leaders to study and understand, there’s no single list of traits that will ultimately predict the effectiveness of a leader, and definitions on these traits themselves is often controversial (Northouse, 2016). Situational factors are important conditions which will ultimately determine the effectiveness of a leader, and different situations call for different leadership traits.
Judge, T. A., Heller, D., and Mount, M. K., (2002). Five-factor model of personality and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(3), 530-541.
[Learn English with Let’s Talk]. (2010, July 12). Personality Development Skills Chapter 02 – Leadership Skills. [Video File]. Retrieved January 15th, 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-jEQs_FeGc
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications
Reichard, R. J., Riggio, R. E., Guerin, D.W., Oliver, P. H., Gottfried, A. W., Gottfried, A. E. (2011). A longitudinal analysis of relationships between adolescent personality and intelligence with adult leader emergence and transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 471-481.