) Academy of Management Executive, 1991 Vol. 5 No. 2
Leadership: do traits matter?
Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Edwin A. Locke, University of Maryland
The study ot leader traits has a long and controversial history. While research
shows that the possession of certain traits alone
not guarantee leadership
success, fhere is evidence
that effective leaders are different from other people
in certain key respects. Key leader traits include: drive (a broad term which
includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative):
leadership motivation (the
lead but not to seek power as an end in
itself): honesty and integrity: self-confidence (which is associated with emotional
stability): cognitive ability: and knowledge of the business. There is less clear
evidence for traits such as charisma, creativity and flexibility. We believe that
the key leader traits help the leader acquire necessary skills: formulate an
organizational vision and an effective plan for pursuing it: and take the
necessary steps to implement the vision in reality.
Few issues have a more controversial history than leadership traits and
characteristics. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, "great man" leadership
theories were highly popular. These theories asserted that leadership qualities
were inherited, especially by people from the upper class. Great men were, born,
not made (in those days, virtually all business leaders were men). Today, great
man theories are a popular foil for so-called superior models. To make the new
models plausible, the "great men" are endowed with negative as well as positive
traits. In a recent issue of the
Harvard Business Review,
for example. Slater and
"The passing years have
. . .
given the coup de grace to another force that has
the 'great man' who with brilliance and farsightedness
could preside wth dictatorial powers as the head of a growing organization."'
Such great men, argue Slater and Bennis, become "outmoded" and dead hands
on "the flexibility and growth of the organization." Under the new democratic
model, they argue, "the individual is of relatively little significance."
Early in the 20th century, the great man theories evolved into trait theories. ("Trait"
is used broadly here to refer to people's general characteristics, including
capacities, motives, or patterns of behavior.) Trait theories did not make
assumptions about whether leadership traits were inherited or acquired. They
simply asserted that leaders' characteristics are different from non-leaders. Traits
such as height, weight, and physique are heavily dependent on heredity,
whereas others such as knowledge of the industry are dependent on experience
The trait view was brought into question during the mid-century when a