Trait Leadership Theory
According to trait leadership theory, which predominated the first half of the twentieth century, researchers believed that great leaders possessed a set of traits which described and defined them (Northouse, 2007). Trait importance varies from differing viewpoints, authors, or organizational needs. Among the many desired traits, charisma and vision emerge as leading traits, when working together have a profound impact on organizational outcomes (Hwang, Kartri & Srinivas, 2005). Desired optimum success flows from the leader’s ability to create and sustain vision (Tieman, 2009). Charisma has a significant role in determining the commitment of followers to the organization or group to which they belong (Hwang, Kartri & Srinivas, 2005). Vision and charisma, to be most effective, need to be traits of a leader with a passionate desire to be motivational and responsible for self and others (Garic, 2006). Great leaders must possess the desire to lead, as well as have a vision and a charismatic personality.
Other highly valued characteristics are integrity, intelligence, self-confidence, sociability and determination (Northouse, 2007, Bennis, 2003). Emotional maturity or intelligence seems to interlace and hold together the other traits. Additional required characteristics common to successful learning leaders include the following: ability to work hard, diligence, dynamism, motivation, conscientiousness and creativeness (Reithel & Finch, 2007). Great leaders possess these characteristics in differing degrees, being required in some combination.
Trait approach to leadership laid the foundation for development of professional testing used to determine desired personality traits of potential employees. Possession of these desired traits are thought to ensure a good professional fit for leaders with organizations (Northouse, 2007). In addition, leadership and personal development programs are developed for personnel from such assessments. Because organizational leaders demonstrate traits such as self-confidence, motivation, dedication, extroversion and understanding (Reithel & Finch, 2007), effective leaders are expected to possess a good mix of such traits. If they are devoid of some of these characteristics, or lack the correct combination of key traits, they will flounder in their performance capacity. Desired traits in potential organizational leaders must be identified as part of the process of ensuring a good fit for the organization.
Positives in trait leadership theory include approximately 50 years or more of research seeming to affirm the concept that leaders are special people with special innate gifts. By understanding how leaders are defined by their traits, a benchmark is established from which potential leaders can be evaluated or plan personal leadership development (Northouse, 2007).
Included in the negatives describing trait leadership theory is the understanding that researchers have compiled lists of traits dependent upon subjective criteria, failing to provide a clearly defined set of leadership traits. Trait leadership theory also fails to include provision for consideration of fluxuating circumstances. Organizational outcomes have not been solidly linked to traits of leadership.
Focusing on leadership traits has been an important part of leadership research, and research has validated its significance in understanding how leaders emerge. But identification of leadership traits does not ensure successful outcomes in employees or group participants, nor does it give organizations the ability to transfer these traits to other individuals through training. Skills leadership theory must be considered in order to explore situations specific to organizations.
Skills Leadership Theory
Great leaders must have the ability to “engage and influence individuals through all levels of the organization” (Reithel & Finch, 2007). In order to accomplish this, a great leader must have training in certain skills and abilities (Northouse, 2007). Leadership skills can be learned in several ways, using tools such as self-study, observation and training. Reinforcement of these skills is established through experience (Garic, 2006). Learning skills must be developed in conjunction with a focus on leader-follower interactions, being understood as a necessary component for good leadership (Mumford, Zaccaro, Connelly & Marks, 2000). Skills leadership theory borrows precepts from trait leadership theory, discarding elements that do not apply. Required technical knowledge is obtained through training and education and developed through experience (Reithel & Finch, 2007). Such training is not something that a candidate for leadership is born with, but is rather acquired. Experience developed through volunteering in service organizations helps leaders develop a positive outlook, an essential leadership skill (Billig, 2002). Critical reasoning ability, verbal reasoning and judgment also must be developed and learned and are necessary for great leadership capacity (Reithel & Finch, 2007).
In the mix of leadership skills needed for great leaders, self awareness is a critical skill (Reithel & Finch, 2007, Blank, 2001, Ruggeri, 2008, Kosiecek, 2008). Social judgment seems to be intertwined with self awareness, enabling the successful leader to anticipate and deal appropriately with organizational resistance. Included in self awareness and social judgment is listening skills and being able to hear and understand others (Alexander, 2008).
Great leaders must practice being lifelong learners, must develop a learning environment and must associate this with ethics (Kosiecek, 2008). Part of being a lifelong learner is to learn to follow as well as lead, and the process must be on-going (Leshower, 2008).
As we rush into the future, globalization and advances in technology will demand that successful leaders are able to adapt to the ever-changing environment (Weis, 2009). Three components of skills leadership theory (technical skills, human skills and conceptual skills) must be present, working together in harmony towards successful application in real life. Trait leadership theory and skills leadership theory combine to define the parameters of the leadership needs of the present and future demands.
Combining Trait and Skills Leadership Models for a Right Fit
Possession of leadership traits by our leaders in combination with skills development will supply us with the leaders that will prove to be a good fit for our present and future success in organizational leadership. One set of traits and skills will not be applicable to all organizations; each organization and situation must draw upon the required traits and skills set that will meet the goals they outline.
Leadership theory may emphasize the trait of integrity as being paramount in defining a leader (Bennis, 2003), or it may emphasize “cognitive performance or skills performance embedded in a distinctly social context” (Mumfod, Zaccaro, Connelly & Marks, 2000) as the subjective criteria. Depending upon the researcher, importance of trait versus skills theory will vary. Comprehensive leadership theory tends to indicate that trait leadership theory and skills leadership theory must be considered together.
Limitations and Biases
Limitations pertaining to this research include the inability to apply organizational research to the whole gamut of society, such as individual countries, etc. The research applies primarily to leadership as it is affected in business organizations.
Biases include a study primarily of leaders, what makes a great leader, and how the leader interacts with the organization. Consideration of followership, followership development and dynamics, was limited or excluded.
People possessing essential leadership traits, developing their skills through training and experience, will provide organizations with great leaders with a good fit for the organization (Reithel & Finch, 2007). Among the leadership traits to be considered are: vision, charisma, desire to lead, integrity, intelligence, self-confidence, sociability and determination, ability to work hard, diligence, dynamism, motivation, extroversion, conscientiousness and creativeness. Training in technical, conceptual and human skills embedded in a learning environment which is progressive adds skills to necessary traits producing great leaders. In our global and ‘wired’ modern society, it is paramount that the best fit for any organization is ensured through the proper selection of people with leadership traits as well as possessing the training in a selected skills set. As society continues to develop leaders for today, we must require our leaders embrace integrity as well as the adaptability to respond to the ever changing demands of our world. When we extract the best elements from trait leadership theory and couple it with specific skill sets we create a union of traits and skills, thus serving the organization for best outcomes.
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