According to the Trait leadership model, not everyone can make a good leader, and only certain individuals possess the leadership qualities or traits which make their personalities suitable for a leading role. Successful leaders indeed differ from other people, and possess some common personality traits that make them capable of being effective in a leadership role. These core traits can predict leadership effectiveness, and organizations looking for a leader would do well to check for these characteristics in potential candidates. 

But is the trait leadership model still applicable to today’s workforce? And what are the leadership traits that separate good leaders from the rest of the pack? We’ll explore both in this article.

The Trait Leadership Theory

Trait leadership theory was originally developed by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. It posits that certain natural abilities are inherent in effective leaders. In other words, leaders are born and not bred. Nowadays, these leadership traits provide the underpinning for a whole crop of personality assessments aimed at predicting who will become successful leaders and who will not. Just like a college GPA, however, they only tell part of the story.

One of the loudest criticisms of trait theory is that it is based on the “great man theory of leadership.” Indeed, many of the characteristics are qualities associated with men, although many exceptional female leaders with similar traits have emerged over the years. So is leadership a function of nature or nurture? The first research in this area was in 1945 by Ohio State University. It turns out that 70% of leadership is learned. Although there are some inborn characteristics that many of us may never have, most people can learn to become great leaders. 

Whether effective leaders are born or bred, it is beneficial to understand past and present leadership theories so that we can recognize and nurture the most distinguishing characteristics in the next generation.

Great Leadership Traits

In addition to our own prejudices about what makes an effective leader, there are inherent flaws in any model. For example, while research bears out that leaders tend to be taller than the average non-leader, it’s hardly useful information. A good model will help us eliminate bias and make continual refinements as we go. In this article, we have avoided terms used in the past such as dominant, tough-minded, charismatic and physically strong, which eliminate wide swaths of the population while supporting outdated hiring practices. Among today’s workforce, we find that authenticity is more important than the ability to be larger-than-life.

Trait researchers continue to develop lists of attributes that they believe are related to leadership and make a leader successful in any situation. Certain traits stand the test of time and are evident in a diverse range of people. These traits include, but are not limited to, the following: 

1. Eagerness To Accept Responsibility

Capable leaders stand by their decisions and accept accountability for the outcomes. They’re not afraid to take calculated risks to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them. 

2. Adaptability and Flexibility

Today’s leaders must be willing and able to react quickly to changes in market conditions. They must exhibit versatility and deal with stress and uncertainty with an even disposition.

3. Confidence

People believe in confident leaders because they exhibit a strong belief in themselves and their mission. These leaders can readily convince others, clearly convey information and admit what they do not know.

4. Trustworthiness

Group members can depend on trustworthy leaders and will work hard for them, knowing that they have their best interests at heart. They earn credibility by being honest, authentic and transparent even during tough times.

5. Perseverance

Strong leaders are resilient. They get up when they’re knocked down and keep moving ahead when confronted with criticism or obstacles.

6. Emotional Stability

Good leaders have the emotional stability to manage and regulate their emotions and influence the emotions of others. They are well adjusted and possess the psychological maturity to gracefully handle tense situations. 

7. Assertiveness

Assertive leaders respect the rights of others while standing up for themselves in positive and constructive ways. These leaders avoid escalating conflict or becoming aggressive.

8. People Skills

The best leaders understand how to interact with people, inspiring strong emotions by creating a vision that generates energy and captures the imagination. They genuinely care about people and it shows in their words and actions. 

9. Empathy

This is one of the main qualities that a modern leader should possess. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. In the absence of empathy, it is impossible for leaders to build trust. Without trust, a leader will not be able to get the most out of employees. 

10. Achievement Oriented

Strong leaders have a powerful desire to succeed. They are as committed to the success of the individual group members as they are to their personal achievement.

Do You Have To Have It All? 

A leader doesn’t have to be outstanding in every area. There are at least two schools of thought on leadership development:

  1. You can get a lot of bang for your development buck by working on your strong skills to make them exemplary. People tend to remember those standout characteristics more than they focus on the larger collection of average skills.  
  2. You can develop your mediocre skills. However, you may not see as much improvement as you would in the areas where you are already above average. 

But any improvement is good improvement. Decide where you can make a difference and tackle what you can. If empathy will never be your strong suit, find a strong number two who can provide that perspective on your team.

Don’t Ignore Fatal Flaws

There is one area, however, that you should not ignore: Fatal flaws can end careers. But the name is a misnomer. Fatal flaws do not have to be terminal. Although they can be difficult for leaders to recognize in themselves, they can be fixed. For career longevity, it’s a good idea to work on fatal flaws. Unlike other leadership traits, incremental improvement can make a significant difference. They are worth the investment of time and energy to repair. Harvard Business Review has a classic list of ten fatal flaws. We have combined and refined our own list down to the most critical six:

  1. Inability to inspire others, for example through apathy or lack of vision and positivity, or modeling inappropriate behaviors.
  2. Lack of collaboration, for example by hoarding resources and withholding information.
  3. Acceptance of mediocrity, for example by refusing to learn from past mistakes or by resisting process improvement, new technologies or other alternative methods.
  4. Immature interpersonal skills, for example an inability to communicate, ask good questions or build trusting relationships.
  5. Disinterest in developing others, for example by failure to provide guidance or blocking access to resources out of narcissism.
  6. Poor judgment, for example making decisions without performing critical analysis or before gathering sufficient information.

The best way to tackle fatal flaws is to work on them one by one. It is essential to gather candid feedback from others, not just leaders at the same level, but people throughout the organization. Most larger companies already use an anonymous 360-degree feedback or multi-rater tool, which can be an important source of information. These tools provide ratings in areas such as decisiveness, conflict management, self knowledge and judgment.

Improve Your Leadership Traits

Multi-rater tools provide perspectives that can be quite different from how we see ourselves. They are invaluable when we use them to create action-based development plans. The same people who provide feedback may be good role models to improve performance and adjust behaviors. 

Want to improve your own leadership competencies? Keep improving your best traits, but don’t ignore areas where you could improve. Stay positive and identify the leaders or mentors who will hold you accountable for the traits you would like to emulate. Create a development plan and work your plan every day. 

Find Your Next Leader

Need more leaders with the characteristics that align with your culture and values? There is no cookie-cutter solution; the leadership traits and core competencies you require can vary depending upon where your company is in its evolution.  If you would like additional information on hiring leaders with the traits your company needs, Y Scouts can help. We are a leadership search practice that connects purpose-driven organizations with purpose-driven leaders. Contact us today to find out how much of an impact your next leader can make. 

This post was updated for clarity in June 2021

After using many different recruiting firms throughout my work experience, I can say that I was very impressed with them and was able to notice the difference immediately. Starting with the planned out process, that really dug into our needs, not just asking for a job description. Y Scouts processes and platforms allowed for great integration with a large part of my organization while keeping confidentiality. The ability to track of the ongoing process from a platform, not only with weekly meetings, was very valuable to me from a time savings perspective, but also allowing me on my own time to review the applicants and potential candidates in the most detail I have ever had. They were very easy to work with and very professional and detailed. I would highly recommend Y Scouts to anyone, we will definitely use them in the future.