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Public Administration: Trait Approach to Leadership


A trait approach to leadership provides more weight to the qualities that people are born with, instead of what they develop or the associations they develop with their employees or followers. Leadership trait theory considers that some people are born with particular character traits that support them in their leadership positions. These are inborn features and qualities that successful leaders possess, but may not be entirely responsible for a person’s achievement as a leader. However, these leadership traits are very influential in the achievements of a leader (Goethals and Sorenson, 2006, p. 126).

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Leadership trait theory assumes that if somebody classifies people with these important traits, he will be able to identify a leader. Some of the leadership traits that are influential in the success of the leader include sociability, integrity, determination, self-confidence, and intelligence.


Intellectual ability or Intelligence is positively associated with leadership and most studies have concluded that leaders are likely to possess higher intellectual ability than non-leaders. Strong leaders possess strong reasoning, perceptual ability, and verbal ability, and these help them to be successful leaders. Even though it is recommended that a leader should be bright, research shows that the intelligence of a leader should not vary excessively from that of the employees.

If the IQ of a leader differs too much from that of the employees, it brings about a counterproductive influence on the leadership ability. Leaders that possess higher intellectual ability than the followers may experience challenges communicating with the juniors since they are preoccupied or their ideas are superior to their juniors to accept (Goethals and Sorenson, 2006, p. 126).

Intelligence is classified as a leadership trait that contributes greatly to a leader’s attainment of social judgment abilities and complex problem-solving abilities. Intelligence is expressed as possessing a positive effect on a person’s power for successful leadership.


Self-confidence is a leadership trait that supports leaders to perform their work effectively. Self-confidence is the capacity to be positive concerning the skills and competencies of a person. It includes a feeling of self-assurance and self-esteem and the consideration that everybody can make a change. This suggests that a leader should have the ability to influence others. Self-confidence permits any leader to have a sense of assurance that his efforts to influence the followers are right and appropriate (Day and Antonakis, 2011, p. 399).


Several leaders also display determination and this can be described as the intention to finish the work effectively. The determination includes some features such as drive, governance, persistence, and initiative because leaders with determination are eager to assert their ideas. They are also proactive and possess the ability to persist when they encounter challenges. A determined leader often shows dominance on occasions where employees need to be instructed.

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Integrity is an essential leadership trait and can be described as a quality of trustworthiness and honesty. Leaders who stick to a strong collection of principles and take accountability for their activities are displaying integrity. Leaders with integrity promote confidence from the followers since their promises are reliable. These leaders are reliable, loyal, and not misleading since integrity makes a person be realistic and can be trusted by their followers (Day and Antonakis, 2011, p. 399).

Many societies have considered integrity as a significant deal in the current leadership. For instance, due to two positions, the position followed by President Bush concerning so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the impeachment situations that President Clinton experienced, the society is calling for more integrity from their leaders. Likewise, people remained doubtful of their leaders after some unpleasant allegations in the corporate world, such as Enron and WorldCom, since they portrayed leaders who are insufficiently ethical.

From an educational perspective, new school programs are being implemented to teach values, personality, and ethical governance. In brief, societies are calling for better integrity of character in their leaders to provide effective directions to the people.


Sociability is the final leadership trait that is very vital to leaders. Leaders utilize sociability to build a productive social relationship with their followers. A leader who displays sociability is welcoming, outgoing, diplomatic, considerate, and courteous. They are sensitive to the desires of their followers and portray concern for their comfort or safety. Leaders with sociability have effective interpersonal abilities and produce cooperative relationships with their employees.

Emotional Intelligence and Charisma

Emotional Intelligence can support leaders in an increasingly challenging leadership responsibility, which few individuals are able to achieve. Emotional intelligence focuses on the leaders’ thinking (cognitive field) and emotions (affective field), and the relationship between both domains (Matthews, Zeidner, and Roberts, 2011, p. 75). In particular, emotional intelligence can be described as the capacity of expressing and perceiving emotions, applying emotions to support thinking and reasoning, and understanding emotions within a particular person. It also helps in managing successfully emotions within oneself in associations with the followers.

Most studies have classified charisma as a leadership trait and as a collection of behaviors found in a leader. The trait approach to charisma considers qualities such as being ideal, active, visionary, and unconventional. Charismatic leaders are also considered to have excellent rhetorical skills and sway employees with an energetic and magnetic trait, normally through inspirational speeches. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrays a good example of a charismatic leader and in contrast, charismatic leadership is more about technique than substance (Daft and Lane, 2008, p. 359).

Big Five Personality Traits

Psychologists have suggested different systems of classifying the characteristics that compose a person’s distinctive personality and the most broadly approved approach is the ‘Big Five Model’. This model rates a person in accordance with neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, and most of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits have been linked to leadership appearance (Wiggins, 2006, p.3).

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Openness can be described as being open to fresh ideas, creativity, intellectual, original, and inquisitive. Conscientiousness is expressed as being reliable, optimistic, prompt, systematic, and organized. Extraversion is described as being friendly, sociable, and outgoing. Agreeableness is used when a leader is polite, trusting, sensitive, open-minded, and jovial. Lastly, neuroticism is expressed as being moody, unreliable, ill-tempered, and anxious (Wiggins, 2006, p. 3).


The trait approach has been greatly applied in leadership theory that proposed that some individuals were born with unique leadership traits that made them strong and influential leaders. Since it was considered that leaders and non-leaders could be distinguished by a collective set of traits, scholars were challenged to point out the ultimate traits of leaders.

Some of the essential traits identified in several studies are sociability, integrity, determination, self-confidence, and intelligence. Additionally, studies have reported a strong association between leadership and traits provided in the ‘Big Five personality model. This paper proposes that managers who are sensitive to their emotions and to the influence of their emotions on followers can be managers that are more successful.


Daft, R., & Lane, P. (2008). The Leadership Experience. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Day, D., & Antonakis, J. (2011). The Nature of Leadership. London: SAGE.

Goethals, G., & Sorenson, G. (2006). The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership. Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Matthews, G., Zeidner, M., & Roberts, R. (2011). Emotional Intelligence 101. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Wiggins, J. (2006). The Five-Factor Model of Personality: Theoretical Perspectives. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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