Last Updated 20 May 2020

The Trait Approach to Leadership

Category Leadership
Essay type Research
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There are few things more important to human activity than leadership. Most people, regardless of their occupation, education, political or religious beliefs, or cultural orientation, recognize that leadership is a real and vastly consequential phenomenon. Political candidates proclaim it, pundits discuss it, companies value it, and military organizations depend on it. The French diplomat Talleyrand once said, “I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.”

Aristotle suggested that “men are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or be ruled,” an idea that evolved into the Great Person Theory. Great leaders of the past do seem different from ordinary human beings. When we consider the lives of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., it is easy to think of their influence as a function of unique personal attributes.

This trait approach was one of the first perspectives applied to the study of leadership and for many years dominated leadership research. The list of traits associated with effective leadership is extensive and includes personality characteristics such as being outgoing, assertive, and conscientious.

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Other traits that have been identified are confidence, integrity, discipline, courage, self-sufficiency, humor, and mystery. Charles de Gaulle described this last trait best when he noted that “A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless.”

What do leaders do the behavioral approach

Three major schools of thought—the Ohio State Studies, Theory X/Y (McGregor, 1960), and the Managerial Grid (Blake & Mouton, 1984)—have all suggested that differences in leader effectiveness are directly related to the degree to which the leader is task oriented versus person oriented. Task-oriented leaders focus on the group’s work and its goals.

They define and structure the roles of their subordinates in order to best obtain organizational goals. Task-oriented leaders set standards and objectives, define responsibilities, evaluate employees, and monitor compliance with their directives. In the Ohio State studies this was referred to as initiating structure, whereas McGregor (1960) refers to it as Theory X, and the Managerial Grid calls it task-centered.

Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the United States, once wrote, “A leader is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.” Task-oriented leaders often see their followers as undisciplined, lazy, extrinsically motivated, and irresponsible. For these leaders, leadership consists of giving direction, setting goals, and making unilateral decisions. When under pressure, task-oriented leaders become anxious, defensive, and domineering.

Situational Approaches to Leadership

The Great Person theory of leadership, represented by such theorists as Sigmund Freud, Thomas Carlyle, and Max Weber, suggests that from time to time, highly capable, talented, charismatic figures emerge, captivate a host of followers, and change history. In contrast to this, Hegel, Marx, and Durkheim suggest that there is a tide running in human affairs, defined by history or the economy, and that leaders are those who ride the tide.

The idea of the tide leads us to the role of situational factors in leadership. For example, Perrow (1970) suggests that leadership effectiveness is dependent upon structural aspects of the organization. Longitudinal studies of organizational effectiveness provide support for this idea. For example, Pfeffer (1997) indicated that “If one cannot observe differences when leaders change, then what does it matter who occupies the positions or how they behave?” (p. 108). Vroom and Jago (2007) have identified three distinct roles that situational factors play in leadership effectiveness.

SOURCE: Adapted from Warren G. Bennis. (1989). Managing the dream: Leadership in the 21st century, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 2(1), 7.

Contingency Theories

One of the first psychologists to develop a contingency approach to leadership effectiveness was Fred Fiedler (1964, 1967), who believed that a leader’s style is a result of lifelong experiences that are not easy to change. With this in mind, he suggested that leaders need to understand what their style is and to manipulate the situation so that the two match. Like previous researchers, Fiedler’s idea of leadership style included task orientation and person orientation, although his approach for determining a leader’s orientation was unique. Fiedler developed the least-preferred coworker (LPC) scale.

On this scale, individuals rate the person with whom they would least want to work on a variety of characteristics. Individuals who rate their LPC as uniformly negative are considered task oriented, whereas those who differentiate among the characteristics are person oriented. The second part of his contingency theory is the favorableness of the situation. Situational favorability is determined by three factors: the extent to which the task facing the group is structured, the legitimate power of the leader, and the relations between the leader and his subordinates.

Another theory that addresses the relation between leadership style and the situation is path-goal theory (House, 1971). In this theory, path refers to the leader’s behaviors that are most likely to help the group attain a desired outcome or goal. Thus, leaders must exhibit different behaviors to reach different goals, depending on the situation. Four different styles of behavior are described:

  • Directive leadership. The leader sets standards of performance and provides guidelines and expectations to subordinates on how to achieve those standards.
  • Supportive leadership. The leader expresses concern for the subordinates’ well-being and is supportive of them as individuals, not just as workers.
  • Participative leadership. The leader solicits ideas and suggestions from subordinates and invites them to participate in decisions that directly affect them.
  • Achievement-oriented leadership. The leader sets challenging goals and encourages subordinates to attain those goals.

Charismatic and Transformational Leadership

Leaders provide vision, a sense of mission, and their trust in their followers. Leaders take stands on difficult issues and urge their followers to follow suit. They emphasize the importance of purpose, commitment, and ethical decision making. The second component is inspirational motivation.

Leaders communicate high expectations, express important purposes in easy-to-understand ways, talk optimistically and enthusiastically about the tasks facing the organization, and provide encouragement and meaning for what has to be done. They often use symbols to focus the efforts of their followers.

The third component is intellectual stimulation. Leaders promote thoughtful, rational, and careful decision making. They stimulate others to discard outmoded assumptions and beliefs and to explore new perspectives and ways of doing things. The fourth component is individualized consideration.

Leaders give their followers personal attention and treat each person individually. They listen attentively and consider the individual needs, abilities, and goals of their followers in their decisions. In order to enhance the development of their followers they advise, teach, and coach, as needed. Yukl (2002) offers the following guidelines for transformational leadership:

  • Develop a clear and appealing vision.
  • Create a strategy for attaining the vision.
  • Articulate and promote the vision.
  • Act confident and optimistic.
  • Express confidence in followers.
  • Use early success in achievable tasks to build confidence.
  • Celebrate your followers’ successes.
  • Use dramatic, symbolic actions to emphasize key values.
  • Model the behaviors you want followers to adopt.
  • Create or modify cultural forms as symbols, slogans, or ceremonies.

Leadership Development

Not everyone is born with “the right stuff” or finds himself or herself in just the right situation to demonstrate his or her capacity as a leader. However, anyone can improve his or her leadership skills. The process of training people to function effectively in a leadership role is known as leadership development and it is a multimillion-dollar business. Leadership development programs tend to be of two types: internal programs within an organization, designed to strengthen the organization, and external programs that take the form of seminars, workshops, conferences, and retreats.

Typical of external leadership development programs are the seminars offered by the American Management Association. Their training seminars are held annually in cities across the country and address both general leadership skills as well as strategic leadership. Among the seminars offered in the area of general leadership are critical thinking, storytelling, and team development in a variety of areas such as instructional technology or government. Seminars on strategic leadership address such topics as communication strategies, situational leadership, innovation, emotional intelligence, and coaching.

A second approach to leadership development is a technique known as grid training. The first step in grid training is a grid seminar during which members of an organization’s management team help others in their organization identify their management style as one of four management styles: impoverished management, task management, country-club management, and team management.

The second step is training, which varies depending on the leader’s management style. The goal of the training is greater productivity, better decision making, increased morale, and focused culture change in the leader’s unique organizational environment. Grid training is directed toward six key areas: leadership development, team building, conflict resolution, customer service, mergers, and selling solutions.

Internal leadership development programs tend to focus on three major areas: the development of social interaction networks both between people within a given organization and between organizations that work with one another, the development of trusting relationships between leaders and followers, and the development of common values and a shared vision among leaders and followers. There are several techniques that promote these goals.

One such technique is 360-degree feedback. This is a process whereby leaders may learn what peers, subordinates, and superiors think of their performance. This kind of feedback can be useful in identifying areas in need of improvement. The strength of the technique is that it provides differing perspectives across a variety of situations that help the leader to understand the perceptions of his or her actions. This practice has become very popular and is currently used by virtually all Fortune 500 companies.

Like all forms of assessment, 360-degree feedback is only useful if the leader is willing and able to change his or her behavior as a result of the feedback. To ensure that leaders don’t summarily dismiss feedback that doesn’t suit them, many companies have arranged for face-to-face meetings between the leaders and those who have provided the feedback.

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