4 Leadership traits: the critique
Some problems associated with leadership trait theory are serious but perhaps also tolerable. Trait theory suffers from problems of accuracy and generalisability. Many traits are simply too context-specific and subjectively felt to be of more general applicability. Batmanghelidjh’s particular combination of personality, behaviour and intellect apparently worked in a particular place and time for 19 years. But you would find yourself in a precarious position if you argued that her characteristics could be generalised as a rule of leadership.
It can be argued, quite convincingly, that viewing leadership as embodied in the traits of an individual is elitist. They inevitably set great value against the personal characteristics of people in senior positions and so do tend to marginalise everyone else. Followers are not entirely invisible but they are translucent, only relevant in as much as they hold opinions about the leader.
One could also state that trait theory is fatalistic, in as much as the underlying commitment is to the natural superiority of certain people: the best leaders ought to simply rise to the top of organisational hierarchies, in this case, as a matter of nature and biology.
Finally, leadership trait theory suffers problems of gender and racial bias and prejudice. Note here that not all people who buy into person-based leadership are sexists and racists. Rather, the perspectives themselves are problematic because they very often reflect the prejudices of a particular society at any one time.
There is by now well established research that demonstrates the cross-over between traits people commonly associated with ‘leadership’ and with ‘men’. This is known as the ‘think male – think manager’ problem (Schein, 2006). Rosener (1995) highlights the problem well in her research when she demonstrates that words commonly linked with the concept of ‘leader’ (strong; rational; independent; linear thinking; aggressive; competitive) bear a close resemblance to words commonly associated with male (strong; in control/domineering; husband/father/brother; macho; power; rational).
We should be careful here, however, to not portray this as a sex-based argument, a male-female issue. Rather, it is better to refer to leadership as often evoking masculine connotations (i.e. not all men are particularly masculine, whereas some women are more masculine and macho than men), albeit that far more men than women appear to benefit materially from this masculine bias in leadership.
Watch the following video of OU academic Caroline Clarke, where she reflects on the problem of masculinity in leadership in more depth.
Masculine behaviours, as Caroline states, can seem very normal to us, as they are engendered in people from an early age. Masculine behaviours, such as the need to control and hyper-competitiveness, can lead to unethical practices, as people compete to outdo one another at work. It is worth recalling the statement from Christine Pearce in the previous video, where she stated that the desire to control everything as a leader is something that should be fought against, as it is hardly ever in the best interests of the organisation or the people who rely on the organisation. You can do something about overly masculine behaviours at work, as Caroline hints at in the clip. Organisations can choose what they reward and what they punish, so it is worth you thinking about the kinds of behaviours rewarded (or not) in your workplace.
Leadership, as well as being linked to masculinity, can also be fraught with race issues. The work of Ospina and Foldy (2009) and Ospina and Su (2009) has highlighted previous studies that demonstrate the tendency within the US and UK to view leadership as embodied in a white leader, with resulting issues for how people from racial and ethnic minorities are viewed and view themselves. Trait-based leadership tends to normalise a certain standard and set of behaviours so that it becomes difficult to see beyond these to new possibilities for leadership. In particular, the language of leadership in the UK has gathered momentum in the wake of a growing preference for individualism and competition over alternative values, such as community and collaboration (Ford, 2006).
Leadership can be co-opted by a growing individualising tendency in society, as a sort of currency of skills and achievements that sets people within and between organisations in competition against one another (Tomlinson et al., 2013). In other words, responsibility for organisations and communities becomes the responsibility of individuals, and their ability to self-master their potential (Clarke and Knights, 2015). We as individuals are the ones responsible for poverty, illness and poor education, rather than larger political and economic forces. The solution is always to conduct more work on the self, rather than to question and challenge how things are seen and done in the first place. The drive is to individualise problems rather than to approach them systemically and collectively.
When things go wrong with leadership, the temptation is always to fixate on the traits of the individual leader. Doing so can be far more straightforward than asking more difficult questions of the organisation or even our systems of thought that seem to place so much faith in individual leaders. In fact it is a major failing of the traits perspective that one of its results can be too much trust in individual leaders to make everything right in the world – in other words, people stop asking tough questions of organisations and themselves, as will become apparent in the next section.