Trait Theory of Leadership

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

TraitTheoryConcept description

Kendra Cherry (reference below) describes the trait theory of leadership as focusing on identifying different personality traits and characteristics that are linked to successful leadership across a variety of situations.

Writing in the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman (reference below) says:

“For a long time, leadership experts remained nostalgic for old-type leaders. In the nineteenth century, books such as Thomas Carlyle’s “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History” attempted to isolate, through historical surveys, the character traits of “great men”; well into the twentieth century, many scholars elaborated on a “trait model” of leadership. They proposed that leaders possessed certain personality traits – courage, decisiveness, intelligence, attractiveness, and so on – that made them intrinsically followable, bureaucracy be damned. A great deal of time was spent thinking about how leadership qualities might be detected, so that leaders could be identified in advance of their elevation.”

In her article, 16 Traits You Need to Be a Great Leader (reference below) Cherry lists some of the traits most commonly associated with great leadership:

  1. Intelligence and Action-Oriented Judgment: Great leaders and smart and make choices that move the group forward.
  2. Eagerness to Accept Responsibility: Strong leaders take on responsibility and don’t pass the blame on to others.
  3. Task Competence: A great leader is skilled and capable.
  4. Understanding Followers and Their Needs: Effective leaders pay attention to group members and genuinely care about helping them succeed.
  5. People Skills: Excellent interpersonal skills are essential for leading effectively.
  6. Need for Achievement: Strong leaders have a need to succeed and help the group achieve their goals.
  7. Capacity to Motivate People: A great leader knows how to inspire others and motivate them to do their best.
  8. Courage and Resolution: The best leaders are brave and committed to the goals of the group.
  9. Perseverance: Strong leaders stick with it, even when things get difficult or the group faces significant obstacles.
  10. Trustworthiness: Group members need to be able to depend upon and trust the person leading them.
  11. Decisiveness: A great leader is capable of making a decision and is confident in his or her choices.
  12. Self-Confidence: Many of the best leaders are extremely self-assured. Because they are confident in themselves, followers often begin to share this self-belief.
  13. Assertiveness: A great leader is able to be direct and assertive without coming off as overly pushy or aggressive.
  14. Adaptability and Flexibility: Effective leaders don’t get stuck in a rut. They are able to think outside of the box and adapt quickly to changing situations.
  15. Emotional Stability: In addition to being dependable overall, strong leaders are able to control their emotions and avoid overreactions.
  16. Creativity: Perhaps most importantly, great leaders not only possess their own creativity, they are also able to foster creativity among members of the group.

Virtually all of these traits are discussed in separate pages on the Atlas – see Leadership Skills.


Kendra Cherry (2016), What Is the Trait Theory of Leadership?,, at,  accessed 28 February 2016.

Kendra Cherry (2014), 16 Traits You Need to Be a Great Leader,, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Joshua Rothman (2016), Shut Up and Sit Down – Why the leadership industry rules, The New Yorker, 29 February 2016 Issue, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Leadership and Communication (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 February 2016.

Image: Carson F Dye, at, accessed 28 February 2016.