Is leadership innate? Are certain people ’natural‘ leaders? Are leaders born rather than made? These are questions that have pre-occupied those concerned with leadership and its development for over a century. Prominent in this debate has been ‘Trait theory'. The theory of trait leadership developed from early leadership research which focused primarily on finding a group of innate attributes that differentiated leaders from non-leaders. Its origins can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle’s so called ’great man’ theory (1849), which was taken up by Galton (1869) and others to popularise the view that leadership was a unique property of extraordinary individuals, and that the traits such leaders possessed could not be learned by all.
It gained influence until the late 1940s/early 1950s when many started to question the theory and traits were deemed to be insufficient in predicting leader effectiveness. Since then it has drifted in and out of fashion. So, for instance, although it came back into focus in the 1980s it again lost favour because of its implications that only certain people can improve ’failing‘ schools as ’super heads‘. Nevertheless the theory continues to influence thinking and practice surrounding leadership and its development. An example of this is the profiling of personality characteristics that is part of the approach of some leadership consultancy organisations:
There are character traits that enable people to take best advantage of long term development opportunities. We call these ‘growth factors’. If organizations take these into account, they are likely to get a better and more accurate return on their investment in leadership development.
(Hay Group, 2007).
The notion that there are certain essential leadership traits and that particular personalities possess these has been an alluring one. However, it has also proved controversial, with many critics seeing this as being far too simplistic. They forward a range of arguments, stating that leadership exists between people in social situations and those individuals who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations (Stogdill, 1948). Other criticisms are that the theory usually only focuses on how leaders are perceived by followers, rather than the leader’s actual effectiveness (Lord et al, 1986; Judge et al, 2009); and that leadership does not just reside in one particular individual but usually requires the whole situation to be examined. In addition to these reflections, challenges have been posed by the growth of other theories such as transformational and transactional leadership.
Read the PowerPoint summary of trait theory [.ppt] (external link).
Arrange a conversation with a number of colleagues to discuss arguments for and against trait theory, particularly in the context of your school and the challenges facing educational leadership today.