3 Leadership as traits theory: the basics

The traits approach to leadership is usually attributed to Thomas Carlyle’s notion of the Great Man (sic) (see Grint, 2010; Spector, 2016). Carlyle (1795–1881) was of the ‘born, not made’ school of leadership. He believed that heroic leaders were a natural phenomenon but that simply being born with natural leadership talent was insufficient and that one also needed a certain drive to succeed, an ambition lacking by most ‘men’. Taylor (2015, p. 29) distinguishes three defining features of the traits-based view of leadership:

  1. Some people have them, some don’t (in other words, observation of traits is used to distinguish people from each other).
  2. They are a personal possession (in other words, they can’t be given to you or taken away from you).
  3. They are in place at birth (in other words, they’re genetically determined).

This evolutionary and biological view holds that those who possess the correct traits will rise to the top due to their natural brilliance, so leadership will inevitably surface. However, one might ask an obvious question at this point: if leaders are naturally made, then why is there not a profusion of excellent leadership?

Before you embark further on the critique of trait-based models of leadership, let us first spend some time reflecting on whether traits do, after all, do have something to commend them. You will do so alongside a deeper consideration of Camila Batmanghelidjh.

There is no doubt that individual leaders can bring a sense of drive and passion to a cause. As hinted above, this is closely tied to the fact that founders of organisations (charities, in particular), often possess an extreme sense of vocation – they are certain of their cause and unbending in their dedication to it. Batmanghelidjh was said to work 11 hours each day, six days a week. She also lived in a fairly modest two-bedroom flat. Despite numerous suggestions that the charity should have spent its money more wisely, there was never any suggestion that Batmanghelidjh enriched herself materially – quite the opposite, in fact.

Most organisations would be very grateful indeed for a boss routinely described in the terms enjoyed by Batmanghelidjh. Such drive can help organisations become noticed and, vitally, can provide much of the initial energy required to start a successful voluntary initiative. You could also state that having such a visible leader fronting an organisation provides a degree of accountability. As the leader is so central to the organisation’s identity, then it is to be expected that the leader will accrue significant credit when the organisation performs well and significant blame when the organisation performs badly.

Activity 2 Valued leadership in the voluntary sector

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

In relation to the voluntary sector, is there a particular kind of leader who seems to be valued over other kinds of leaders? What do they look like and how do they behave? Are these leader characteristics a good thing, a bad thing or somewhere in between (and why)? Spend about 10 minutes jotting down your thoughts.

After reflecting on the above questions, visit the discussion forum [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   thread for this activity and spend 10 minutes posting your thoughts. Then respond to the thoughts of at least two of your fellow learners to keep the discussion flowing and develop the course learning community.


Identifying the kinds of people who are valued as leaders is a valuable method of critical self-reflection. One influential body of leadership theory, rooted in social psychology, maintains that organisations and sectors tend to choose leaders who are typical of the broader group (Hogg, 2001; Hogg and Terry, 2000). For example, if an organisation seems to value risk taking above all other things, then there is a good chance that it will select people deemed to be successful at taking risks as a leader. Our tendency to appoint leaders ‘like us’ means that groups tend to select people who they think best serve their interests, but one implication of this is that such groups can be less open to change.

Having considered the theory behind the leadership as traits perspective, you will now reflect on some of the critiques of this position. It is good to consider these criticisms as they both enable you to be a more critical thinker at work but they also set you up well to reflect on alternative approaches to leadership.

2 Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company

4 Leadership traits: the critique