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Trait Theory on Leadership

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Trait theory is based on the assumption that people inherit certain attributes that make them better suited to lead. A trait is a relatively stable attribute that causes individuals to behave in a certain manner consistently. It suggests that personalities are formed on those broad dispositions and the combination and interaction with people of t hose displayed behaviors form a personality that is unique to each individual. Trait theory on leadership is based on identifying this correlation between individual behaviors and leadership.

Strengths
The trait approach has several identifiable strengths. First, the trait approach is intuitively appealing.It fits clearly with the notion that leaders are t he people who are out in front and leading the way in the society. Communities believe that leaders are a special kind of people who can do extraordinary things and have a need to see their leaders as gifted people. The trait approach is consistent with this perception because it is built on the premise that leaders are different, and their difference affirms the special traits they possess.
Second, research done on trait theory is vast and which gives the trait approach a measure of credibility that other approaches lack. Out of this abundance of research and history case studies analysis has surfaced vast amount of data that emphasize the important role of various personality traits in the leadership process.

Third, trait approach is more conceptual in nature, results from the way it highlights the leader component in the leadership process. Leadership is composed of leaders, followers, and situations, but the trait approach is focused around leaders only. Although this is also a potential weakness, by focusing exclusively on the role of the leader in leadership, the trait approach has been able t o provide a deeper and more intricate understanding of how the leader and the leader’s personality are related to the leadership process.

Last, the trait approach has given us some direction for what we need to look for, if we want to be leaders. It identifies what traits leaders should have and whether the traits we do have are the best traits for leadership. Nowadays to find the right people for the right job, it is common for organizations to use personality assessment instruments. A trait assessment gives individuals a clearer picture of who they are as leaders and how well they may fit into the organizational hierarchy.

Weaknesses
Trait theory on leadership has its own weaknesses as well. First and foremost is the failure of the trait approach to define a list of consistent leadership traits. Although an enormous number of studies have been conducted over the past 100 years, the findings from these studies have been ambiguous and uncertain at times.

Second - The trait approach does not lay out a set of hypotheses or principles about what kind of a leader is needed in a certain situation or what a leader should do, given a particular circumstance. Instead, this approach emphasizes that having a leader with a certain set of traits is crucial to having effective leadership. Trait theory affirms that it is the leader and the leader’s personality that are central to the leadership process.

As Stogdill (1948) pointed out more than 50 years ago, it is difficult to isolate a set of traits that are characteristic of leaders without also factoring situational effects into the equation. People who possess certain traits that make them leaders in one situation may not be effective leaders in another situation. Some people may have the traits that help them emerge as leaders but not the traits that allow them to maintain their leadership over time. It is therefore difficult to identify a universal set of leadership traits in isolation from the context in which the leadership occurs.

For example, Sir Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century. His steadfast refusal to consider defeat, surrender, or compromise peace helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult early days of the war when the British Commonwealth and Empire stood alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler. He led Britain as Prime Minister until victory over Nazi Germany had been secured in 1945.
However i mmediately after t he war Churchill lost the election and was appointed the leader of the opposition. Later on when he penned down the book “Second World War”, Churchill labelled dominant attributes of leadership as follows: “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill” – which explains the importance of adopting situational specific leadership traits.

Another weakness is that when trying to ascertain universal leadership traits, researchers have focused on the relationship between specific traits and leader emergence, but they have failed to establish a strong link between leader traits with other business outcomes such as productivity or employee satisfaction. Hence the trait approach has failed in describing how leaders’ traits affect the outcomes of groups and teams in organizational settings.

Not an easy process
Trait theory may not be the best approach for training and development of future leaders. Even if definitive traits could be identified, teaching new traits is not an easy process because traits cannot be internalized easily. Traits are largely fixed psychological structures and hence require consistent effort over a reasonably long period to achieve noticeable favorable leadership traits.

Despite its shortcomings, the trait approach provides valuable information about leadership. It can be applied by individuals at all levels and in all types of organizations. Although the trait approach does not provide a definitive set of traits, it does provide direction regarding which traits are good to have if one aspires to a leadership position. By taking personality tests and other similar questionnaires, people can pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses with regard to leadership and gain insight into whether they have certain traits deemed important for leadership.

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