One of the classic schools of thought on the subject of leadership holds that leadership – whether in business, politics, or other areas of society – consists of a collection of traits. These traits can be cultivated by anyone who wishes to become a better leader.

To show you just how long this school of thought has been around, I’d like to share a quote with you from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline…reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive discipline and sternness in command result in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a leader.

The quote is an eloquent statement of what I think of as the trait theories of leadership. Trait theories are an attempt to discover and describe the immutable skills of leadership, and the essential aspects of leadership that all leaders possess.

Interested in this approach? There’s a whole lot of research on the subject (if you’re interested, I’ve included a bibliography at the end of this article). Here’s the upshot, though: after extensive research on people generally considered effective leaders, experts in this field agree that a consistent relationship exists between leadership and the following traits:

1. Intelligence
2. Adjustment (ability to adjust to changing circumstances)
3. Extraversion (as opposed to introversion)
4. Conscientiousness
5. Openness to new experiences
6. General self-efficacy (belief in one’s own competence)

In these traits, many will recognize a “classic” leadership style that many entrepreneurs, public figures and experts aspire to. And yet, there’s a problem with this type of research, which is this: it tells us that leaders have these traits, but it does not explain how these traits contribute to leadership, or why some people with these traits are not leaders.

For this reason, I tend to think of the trait theory of leadership as a “one size fits all” approach. They’re popular because they simplify a complex and elusive concept. However, by focusing on that which is common across all leaders, they necessarily exclude important aspects of leadership that vary from leader to leader and may, in fact, have more significance than those traits that are held in common.

As Stephen J. Zaccaro noted in the January 2007 issue of American Psychologist, trait theories still:

1. Focus on a small set of individual attributes such as Big Five personality traits, neglecting key issues like cognitive abilities, motives, values, social skills, expertise, and problem-solving skills

2. Fail to consider patterns or integrations of multiple attributes

3. Do not distinguish between those leadership attributes that are generally fixed and those that are shaped by, and bound to, the situation at hand

4. Do not consider how fixed character traits account for the diverse range of behaviors that effective leadership calls for

One danger with this kind of simplistic approach to leadership is the conclusion that if you simply develop the necessary traits, your leadership abilities will emerge (in my experience as a coach, this simply isn’t true). Another danger is focusing on these widely agreed-on leadership traits as selection criteria in filling employment positions.


Because these traits are drawn from a popular definition based on only the most obvious forms of leadership, such as those exhibited by heads-of-state, senior executives in business, and the military. From our perspective, this not only ignores the diversity that exists across different forms of leadership, it devalues forms of leadership that are less obvious and more subtle, but equally as effective.

Further Reading:
Lord, R.G., De Vader, C.L., & Alliger, G.M. (1986), Arvey, R.D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z., & McGue, M. (2006), Judge, T.A., Bono, J.E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M.W. (2002), Tagger, S., Hackett, R., Saha, S. (1999), Kickul, J., & Neuman, G. (2000), Smith, J.A., & Foti, R.J. (1998), and Foti, R.J., & Hauenstein, N.M.A. (2007)

Author's Bio: 

Lynda-Ross Vega: A partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., Lynda-Ross specializes in helping coaches, coaching clients and entrepreneurs . She is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. For free information on how to succeed as an entrepreneur or coach, create a thriving business and build your bottom line doing more of what you love, visit