“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2010, pg. 3).
In an increasingly politically correct, democratic society—where equality of treatment and equity of outcome oftentimes overshadow individual performance—trait theory of leadership has managed to survive. Instead of focusing on the context of a specific leadership situation or the subordinates in an organization, trait theory targets only the man or woman in charge. Essentially, trait theory suggests that potential leaders and great leaders who have already demonstrated success are best analyzed in a vacuum. While trait theory may have fallen in an out of favor over the past century, it does have certain advantages that are especially pertinent to those in the military. Before treading any further into its occupational applicability, however, the reader will benefit from a brief survey of trait theory’s origins, approach, strengths, and critiques.
Arguably the first approach to the study of leadership, the trait approach was employed in the field long before it was tackled in the classroom. After all, Sun Tzu preached “know your enemy” (Sun Tzu, 2006 pg. 34) long before Socrates entreated students to “know thyself” (Brickhouse, 1996, pg. 74). From ancient battlefields to philosophical mysteries, understanding the inherent characteristics of a person has proven a worthy goal. People’s aspirations to leadership however, had yet to be matched with a theoretical basis for many years. It was not until the early 20th century that the topic found itself under the scholar’s gaze.
Initial studies often focused on the “great man” approach, whereby already successful and admired leaders were scrutinized to find common characteristics (Northouse, 2010, pg. 15). Jesus, Washington, Napoleon, and the like found themselves aggregated with the hope of precipitating a set of essential leadership characteristics. “Trait theories did not make assumptions about whether leadership traits were inherited or acquired. They simply asserted that leaders’ characteristics are different from non-leaders” (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). Over the course of the theory’s development the range of characteristics studied varied widely. Initially scholars focused on physical characteristics such as stature, physique, and weight (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991); later, personality aspects such as initiative, confidence and masculinity factored into studies (Northouse, 2010, pg. 19).
Although not considered the preeminent leadership theory, falling prey to more teachable forms of leadership (i.e. transformational and authentic leadership) trait theory does possess some notable strengths. First, the theory is highly descriptive and intuitive. People naturally gravitate toward that which is straightforward. This strength is the primary reason that trait theory surfaced as the first major...