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Traits of Effective Leaders

What qualities do you need to be a great leader? Do certain personality traits help people become better leaders? According to the trait theory of leadership, people who posses certain leadership traits tend to be better leaders.

Do Leadership Traits Exist?

People have long questioned what exactly makes some people great leaders. Early theories centered on the notion that certain people were simply natural-born leaders. Modern theories tend to focus on the idea that while there are certain traits that can help predispose people to leadership, situational variables also play an important role.

Researchers including Stogdill and later Mann have found that particular traits are linked to whether a person emerges as a leader across a variety of situations.

Critics point out, however, that not every person who becomes a leader possesses these traits and not every person who displays these traits becomes a leader.

Many of the early studies of leaders looked at the qualities that separated leaders from followers. Researchers assumed that leaders would display more of certain qualities than non-leaders would. It turned out that distinguishing between leaders and followers was not so simple. Not all leaders displayed the same traits. Followers often displayed the same characteristics as great leaders.

Some traits, such as self-confidence and extroversion, could be associated with leadership to only a fairly small degree. And more recent research points to the idea that experience and situational variables also play an important role in determining how well people perform in leadership roles.

When it comes to the career world, the qualities valued by employers and employees are of particular importance. And what it takes to succeed in one leadership situation may not be quite the same in another setting or circumstance.

Still, many researchers agree that possessing certain traits makes it more likely that a person can potentially become a great leader. So what traits exactly are linked to strong leadership?

Some Key Leadership Traits

As you think about some of the leaders in life, whether it’s your manager at work or the politicians you vote for, you may wonder exactly what makes them suited to a leadership position. Some of the traits most commonly associated with great leadership include the following.

  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Extroversion
  • Open-mindedness
  • Ambition
  • Assertiveness
  • Self-confidence
  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Cooperativeness
  • Supportiveness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Trustingness
  • Intelligence

While such traits may play an important role in great leadership, most experts suggest that other factors also play an important part in the leadership puzzle. For example, the situation itself and the needs of the group help determine which traits are most needed for a successful leader to succeed.

Researchers have concluded that successful leadership is the result of the interaction between the traits of the leader and the situation itself (i.e., the contingency approach to leadership). They have realized that the interaction between the leader and the situation is key to understanding leadership, along with the specification of important trait and situational variables.

John W.Fleenor ,the Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Leadership Traits Do Not Guarantee Success

What is clear from the research is that certain traits do not guarantee that a person will be a successful leader. Many researchers today focus on what is known as the contingency theory of leadership, or the idea that successful leadership hinges on the interaction between the characteristics of the leader and the situation itself.


Fleenor, J. W. Trait approach to leadership. Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. SAGE Publications; 2006.

Gardner. J. W. On leadership. New York: Free Press; 1999.

Nichols AL, Cottrell CA. What Do People Desire in Their Leaders? the Role of Leadership Level on Trait DesirabilityThe Leadership Quarterly. August 2014;25(4):711-729. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.04.001.