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The ‘Great Man’ theory: Trait leadership in three minutes


Trait leadership, at its core, aims to identify a number of innate traits that are thought to be common among successful leaders. In essence, it is a list of attributes demonstrated by successful and unsuccessful leaders that can consequently be used to predict leadership potential in different people.


This concept is often associated with Thomas Carlyle’s writing from the 1800s. He is well known as one of the principle proponents of the ‘Great Man’ theory of leadership which argues that people are born with the ability to lead. The concept rested on the idea that history had been shaped by the actions of extraordinary leaders, and that these extraordinary people had inherent capabilities and traits that made them uniquely capable of leadership. Under the ‘Great Man’ concept, a leader is born and never made.


Trait leadership might be understood to take a similar view – aiming to identify in a potential leader the accepted traits of successful leaders who have gone before. It aims to identify traits such as a high level of ambition, self-confidence, integrity and charisma.


The proposed advantages of this approach have included the central focus and detailed understanding it appears to give of the leader within the overall leadership process. In doing so, it provides a long and substantive list that creates a substantial measure against which an individual can be assessed.


A chief criticism of the theory came from Stogdill in 1948, who undertook a comprehensive review of published studies on the purported traits and characteristics of leaders. His conclusion was that the qualities, characteristics and skills required by a leader are, to a great extent, driven by the specific demands of a particular situation, so that analysing leadership cannot be complete without considering these situations, as well as the leaders themselves.


Stodgill also considered the role that followers play in a leader’s effectiveness – drawing a line between the personal traits of the leader and the relationship with the traits, drive and activities of the followers.
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