Rate yourself on the Leadership Trait Questionnaire. What do you perceive as your greatest strength? Give an example of how your behavior in one situation illustrated this strength. What do you perceive as your greatest weakness? Give an example of how your behavior in one situation illustrated this weakness.
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The trait approach has its roots in leadership theory that suggested that certain people were born with special traits that made them great leaders. Because it was believed that leaders and non-leaders could be differentiated by a universal set of traits, throughout the 20th century researchers were challenged to identify the definitive traits of leaders.
In the mid-20th century, several major studies questioned the basic premise that a unique set of traits defined leadership. As a result, attention shifted to incorporating the impact of situations and of followers on leadership. Researchers began to study the interactions that occur between leaders and their context instead of focusing only on leaders’ traits. More recently, there are signs that trait research has come full circle, because there is a renewed interest in focusing directly on the critical traits of leaders.
From the multitude of studies that have been conducted through the years of individuals’ personal characteristics, it is clear that many traits contribute to leadership. Some of the important traits that are consistently identified in many of these studies are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability. These traits, more than many of the others, are characteristic of the people we call leaders.
On a practical level, the trait approach is concerned with which traits leaders exhibit and who has these traits. Organizations employ personality assessment instruments to identify how individuals will fit within their organizations. The trait approach is also used for personal awareness and development, as it allows managers to analyze their strengths and weaknesses and to gain a clearer understanding of how they should try to change to enhance their leadership.
There are several advantages to viewing leadership from the trait approach:
It is intuitively appealing because it fits clearly into the popular idea that leaders are special people who are out front, leading the way in society.
There is a great deal of research that validates the basis of this perspective.
By focusing exclusively on the leader, the trait approach provides an in-depth understanding of the leader component in the leadership process.
It has provided some benchmarks against which individuals can evaluate their own personal leadership attributes.
On the negative side:
The trait approach has failed to delimit a definitive list of leadership traits.
In analyzing the traits of leaders, the approach has failed to take into account the impact of situations.
The approach has resulted in subjective lists of the most important leadership traits, which are not necessarily grounded in strong, reliable research.
The trait approach has not adequately linked the traits of leaders with other outcomes such as group and team performance.
This approach is not particularly useful for training and development of leadership because individuals’ personal attributes are relatively stable and fixed, and therefore their traits are not amenable to change.