If we can identify the distinguishing characteristics of successful leaders, we will at least be able to select good leaders
A number of common traits can be found in good leaders
Ability to solve problems creatively
Ability to communicate and listen
Many interests and sociability
Positive & Sincere attitudes towards subordination
Leaders are people, who are able to express themselves fully.
They also know what they want, why they want it, and how to communicate what they want to others, in order to gain their co-operation and support.
Lastly, they know how to achieve their goals.
But what is it that makes someone exceptional in this respect?
As soon as we study the lives of people who have been labelled as great or effective leaders, it becomes clear that they have very different qualities.
We only have to think of political figures like Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Mao Zedong to confirm this.
Instead of starting with exceptional individuals many turned to setting out the general qualities or traits they believed should be present.
Surveys of early trait research by Stogdill (1948) and Mann (1959) reported that many studies identified personality characteristics that appear to differentiate leaders from followers.
Problems with Trait Theories
It's not always true
As Peter Wright (1996: 34) has commented, ‘others found no differences between leaders and followers with respect to these characteristics, or even found people who possessed them were less likely to become leaders’.
Yet pick up almost any of the popular books on the subject today and you will still find a list of traits that are thought to be central to effective leadership.
The basic idea remains that if a person possesses these she or he will be able to take the lead in very different situations. At first glance, the lists seem to be helpful. But spend any time around them and they can leave a lot to be desired
Different situations need different traits
The first problem is that the early searchers after traits often assumed that there was a definite set of characteristics that made a leader - whatever the situation. In other words, they thought the same traits would work on a battlefield and in the staff room of a school.
They minimised the impact of the situation (Sadler 1997). They, and later writers, also tended to mix some very different qualities.
Some are aspects of a person's behaviour, some are skills, and others are to do with temperament and intellectual ability
The list is very big but still not exhaustive
Like other lists of this nature it is quite long - so what happens when someone has some but not all of the qualities?
On the other hand, the list is not exhaustive and it is possible that someone might have other ‘leadership qualities’. What of these?
More recently people have tried looking at what combinations of traits might be good for a particular situation. There is some mileage in this. However, it remains an inexact science!
Different traits needed for different genders?
One of the questions we hear most often around such lists concerns their apparent ‘maleness’ (e.g. Rosener 1997).
When men and women are asked about each others characteristics and leadership qualities, some significant patterns emerge.
Both tend to have difficulties in seeing women as leaders.
The attributes associated with leadership on these lists are often viewed as male. However, whether the characteristics of leaders can be gendered is questionable.
If it is next to impossible to make a list of leadership traits that stands up to questioning, then the same certainly applies to lists of gender specific leadership traits!