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5.3.1 Trait theories

Trait theories are based on the assumption that the determining factor in an effective leader is a set of personal characteristics. It is also assumed that the way to discover these characteristics is to study successful leaders and determine which characteristics they have in common. However, despite innumerable studies, only about 5 per cent of the characteristics identified in successful leaders have been found to be widely shared. Of these, three stand out as significant:

  • above average intelligence, but not at the level of a genius;

  • initiative – a combination of independence, inventiveness and an urge to get things done;

  • self-assurance – a blend of self-confidence, self-esteem and high personal expectations.

Clearly, while these are important characteristics, they do not provide the clear-cut distinction between good and bad leaders sought by the theory. (Such a distinction may, in fact, be unattainable.) There are also significant exceptions: some individuals with all three characteristics are ineffective leaders, and some who lack these characteristics are very effective leaders. Despite these criticisms, trait theories continue to influence, albeit implicitly, many organisational procedures for selecting leaders.