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When doing networking, talking to others and talking in different foreign languages, we usually try to translate leadership into a local language. Often the translated word does not really include all qualities and core of what leadership really means, as used in English.

This has been my motivation to deep into the topic and deep primarily not only into the recent understand of leadership, but an understanding how leadership has been developed over time.

To make this article practical and usable in daily life or as leadership tactic, knowledge, my goal here is to give a handy, concise summary of leadership history.

Trait THeory of Leadership – Early history

The very first recognition of importance of leadership leads us back to Plato and Plutarch. They have explored the question “What qualities distinguish an individual as a leader?”. They made the assumption that leadership is rooted in the characteristics that certain individuals possess. This idea that leadership is based on individual attributes is known as the “trait theory of leadership”. In other words, a leader is in all situation is a leader, because has specific individual attributes makes him/her leader.

Trait Theory – 19th Century

Thomas Carlyle has identified the talents, skills, and physical characteristics of men to become leader, as individual attributesin his work Heroes and Hero Worship (1841).

Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869), he examined leadership qualities in the families of powerful men and studied generations of first and second degree relatives. Galton has concluded that leadership was something to inherit, leaders were born and not developed.

Both of these notable works lent great initial support for the notion that leadership is rooted in characteristics of the leader.

In summary, for decades, this trait-based perspective theoretical work in leadership, conducted over a hundred studies proposing a number of characteristics that distinguished leaders from nonleaders, like:

intelligence, dominance, adaptability, persistence, integrity, socioeconomic status, and self-confidence.

Let us stop here for a moment to see, how many of these descriptions we find back in recent definitions. Before stepping on to the next stage of leadership history, please take a moment to think through the above leadership qualities. Some of them are still there when we describe nowadays leaders.

English: Figure 1. Model of Trait Leadership
Image via Wikipedia

Criticism of Trait Theory – 20th Century

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Stogdill and Mann found that while some traits were common across a number of studies, the overall evidence suggested that persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations. Subsequently, leadership was no longer characterized as an enduring individual trait. Based on further research and studies showed that individuals can be effective in certain situations, but not others. This approach dominated much of the leadership theory and research for the next few decades.

In 1980’s new methods and measurements were developed that would reestablish the trait theory. New research design methodology allowed researchers to see that individuals can and do emerge as leaders across a variety of situations and tasks. Additionally to the new technic and methods in researches, the 1980s statistical advances allowed researchers to conduct more and deeper analyses, where they could quantitatively analyze and summarize the findings, from a much wider view and multiple studies to be included in these analyses.

The conclusion they have made were:

  • Leaders are leaders across a variety of situations and tasks
  • Significant relationships between leadership and each quality:
  • intelligence
  • adjustment
  • extraversion
  • conscientiousness
  • openness to experience
  • general self-efficacy (person believe in own competence)

A very recent summary of trait theory has been done by Zaccaro (2007):

  1. focus on a small set of  such as Big Five personality traits, to the neglect of cognitive abilities, motives, values, social skills, and problem-solving skills;
  2. fail to consider patterns or integrations of multiple attributes;
  3. do not distinguish between those leader attributes that are generally not malleable over time and those that are shaped by, and bound to, situational influences;
  4. do not consider how stable leader attributes account for the behavioral diversity necessary for effective leadership.

Source: Wikipedia, Plato, Plutarch, Bird, Stogdill, Mann, Carlyle, Galton, Zaccaro