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Personal Attributes of Leadership - Research Paper

This literature review examines scholarly work in the area of leadership. In particular this paper focuses on the personal attributes of leadership and that the needed skills and abilities for leading are within the grasp of those who desire to grow in this area. There are four main sections of this paper covering the key topics discussed by the various authors: conceptual skills, technical skills, environmental influences, and leadership traits. Leaders work with ideas and concepts to shape the organization in the direction that the leaders wish to take them. They also lean on their knowledge and proficiency of the skills and activities through which they lead their teams. A leader must also be attuned to internal and external factors which influence the group and know how to adjust the group’s environment in order to maximize production. Finally, one must cultivate the qualities and characteristics that separate the good leaders from the crowd. A leader’s goal is to harmonize these attributes in order to be a more effective leader.

Keywords: trust, conceptual skills, technical skills, leadership traits, environmental influences, managing change, personal attributes, leader-follower relationship, cross-cultural, self-efficacy


Those who aspire to be leaders of men and women can learn many basic techniques for inspiring, motivating, and leading a team to success. However, a leader must also have qualities and characteristics of a leader, which reinforce legitimacy in the eyes of one’s subordinates. These attributes help shape the leader’s actions in moving the team toward success or failure. This paper focuses on several attributes, which help to define a proper leader, breaking them down into conceptual skills, technical skills, environmental influences, and leader trait descriptions.

Conceptual Skills

“No matter what leaders set out to do – whether it’s creating strategy or mobilizing teams to action – their success depends on how they do it” (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002, p.3). There are various leadership styles that leaders take on in their day to day affairs. Constituents pose the concept of the charismatic leader – leaders who are affected by social influences. In the advent of social Medias such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like it is not surprising that some leaders are influenced by societal matters. “Charismatic leadership is defined as a social influence process that involves the formulation and articulation of an evocative vision, provides inspiration to motivate collective action, demonstrates sensitivity to environmental trends, and displays unconventional and personal risk-taking behavior” (Sosik & Dinger, 2007, p.136). Leaders are in no position to lead without a group of followers.

“The study of leadership is both intriguing and frustrating. In moments of leadership success, leadership drives the imagination of researchers, practitioners, and the public, as it may mean changed lives for the better” (Singh, Nadim, & Ezzedeen, 2012, p.6). The 21st Century, which has become highly evolved, is positioned to adapt to what is referred to as the authentic leader.

According to Dirks and Ferrin (2001), trust is a cornerstone of team dynamics just as it is in a supervisor-subordinate relationship. As companies are pushing more leadership decisions down to lower-level managers, they must develop a greater sense of trust from the bottom up to ensure employees remain committed to company goals (Sharkie, 2009). The leader must cultivate a sense of synergy in the team if the change is to be successful (Conner, 1993).

Shooter, Paisley, and Sibthorp (2012) examine three attributes in a leader that help establish trust: “including ability, benevolence, and integrity” (para. 7). The findings suggest that leader characteristics are more helpful in developing trust in a leader-follower relationship than the social exchange theory. Sociology, economic, and political science scholars support this latter theory and have given it the title of encapsulated trust (Shooter,, 2012). Cook, Hardin, and Levi (2005) suggest that encapsulated trust is established in both the leader and follower through a response from the benefit gained in the mutual relationship. Another consideration is that effective motivation requires a specific plan with measurable goals to attain (Randall, 1968). Simply stated, a leader must set realistic goals that challenge the employee to improve performance, but not overwhelm the employee to the point that the employee gives up before trying to achieve the new goal (Schaffer, 2008).

President Lincoln became a great leader by acting on what needed to be done and not what felt natural or comfortable. Results driven leaders need to care for the needs of the followers and work on the relationship part of leadership. The reverse is true for the relationship driven leader in that action must be taken and results gained. The skills on both sides need to be developed in order to have a balance in the leader-follower relationship (Ellis, 2013). Gouging the effectiveness of a leader can be found in the perspectives of those to whom he or she has had the opportunity to lead. Perhaps another attribute of a leader can be seen in the effectiveness of his leadership. “The greatness of a leader is measured by the achievements of the led. This is the ultimate test of his effectiveness” (Bradley, 2010, p.6). Bradley goes on to say that leadership in and of itself is intangible. “Leaders need two kinds of capability to succeed. First, essential leadership capabilities – which are the capabilities required of all leaders, regardless of context – and second, situational capabilities – which are the additional skills required for success in specific contexts” (Ohmae, 2005, p.38).

Mostovicz, Kakabadse, & Kakabadse (2011) introduce the importance of leadership attributes as it relates to corporate social responsibility and how it cannot be practiced if individuals in the organization do not possess various personal attributes. These foundational attributes of personal responsibility, ethics, trust, and leadership are dynamic and necessary for organizational success. Furthermore, these values are useless if not focused on meeting the needs of the people in the organization.

Esu and Inyang (2010) use the issues Nigeria faces with the corrupt leadership in order to illustrate the “dos” and “don’ts” of leading. Two of the main leadership attributes examined is those who help to build a company and those who will inevitably derail a company. These leadership styles are established through culture and training. Again, Nigeria is a perfect example of many organizational leaders who are now skilled at derailing companies. The dictatorial system was established over the last four decades with little to no positive leadership examples. If a nation were in as rough a condition as Nigeria, mass application of a universal leadership structure would not help. Therefore, a better solution to the management issues in Nigeria or similar countries would be a custom leadership approach for each organization.

Technical Skills
Leadership Skills

Leadership is often a challenging topic. As with most social science concepts, it is not defined by one unique definition. On the contrary, scholars have various meanings for the term (Yousef, 1998, p.275). Therefore, leadership qualities and attributes are not exact sciences rather, leaders, are more uniquely identify by an approach, a possessed skill, either taught or gained naturally. In this portion of the literature review, the focus will be the personal attributes of leadership. As well as analyze the skills approach with a particular emphasis on technical and human skills such as literacy, motivation, cooperation, trust, managing change, and conflict resolution. Northouse (2013) as well as Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee (2002) discuss the various leadership theories from natural born leaders to those who learn leadership traits and skills. Despite the numerous methods for reaching the goal, many scholars do agree that leadership can be learned (Schyns & Sczesny, 2010; Olivares, 2011; Tatlah, Quraishi, & Ahmad, 2011; Steed, 2012).

More than sixty years ago, it was discovered that the myth about leaders having to be born with leadership abilities and that others could not develop these traits was found to be false. Tatlah, Quraishi, and Ahmad (2011) assert that great leaders are developed and not born. Stogdill (1948) helped to identify the following as the top leadership traits: “intelligence, scholarship, dependability in exercising responsibilities, activities and social participation and socioeconomic status” (Esu & Inyang, 2010, para. 7). However, Posner’s (1990) research ranked honesty, competence, and forward-looking among the top leadership attributes.

The list of leader attributes is extensive as many researchers seek to identify the exact tendencies that are an integral part in the life of great leaders. Lord and Hall (2005) use a more general approach and divide the leadership development process into three basic categories: expert, intermediate, and novice. The recommendation is to help each newer leader navigate through training based on that leader’s individualized experiences. This reasoning is also in agreement with Northouse (2013) and his description of blended leadership skills in the area of conceptual, human, and technical abilities (p. 44).

Literacy Skills

Tatlah, Quraishi, and Ahmad (2011) report that through reading and writing an individual should not only learn new skills and abilities, but also teach others. Leaders are tasked with communicating vision and direction to followers and therefore need to be literate. This may seem a simple concept, but there are varying levels of literacy and those who are in leadership positions or placed in those situations should seek to further one’s own literacy skills. Northouse (2013) defines leadership as a process through which an individual influences other individuals to reach a shared goal (p. 15). The only reasonable way to accomplish this task is to increase literacy throughout the organization and encourage those who take initiative in this area.

Motivation To Grow

Schyns and Sczesny’s (2010) research shows the importance of leaders believing that change can be developed in one’s own life through self-efficacy. This psychological stance is helpful during the training process. Not only can a leader grow with external assistance, but can also choose to implement new traits by one’s self. Incidentally, research has shown that due to organizational cultural changes over the past couple of decades, leadership attributes have become more balanced containing both masculine and feminine stereotypical tendencies (Powell, Butterfield, and Parent, 2002). Bass and Riggio (2005) support the view that one can not only change attributes through self-efficacy, but also through transformational leadership help others develop (p. 128). Northouse (2013) believes that a leader can model one’s own leadership style through developing the traits of a leader or the skills of a leader. Steed (2012) suggests that in sharing insight and wisdom along with strict accountability, a leader and follower can both grow in skills and leader-follower relationship.

The first act in developing that relationship is to establish trust between superiors and subordinates. This is possible when there is a healthy safe environment that promotes the sharing of ideas, resources, and experiences (Costigan, Ilter, & Berman, 1998, quoted in Shooter,, 2010). Besides trust and a growth environment, employers can motivate employees by establishing a direct relationship between increases in unit profit margins with performance incentives and bonuses (Mercer, 1997). An employee’s knowledge and professional development is just as important as the motivational level to achieve (Schaffer, 2008).

Managing Change

When an individual is placed in charge of a segment of an organization, that individual must be capable of leading the members of that segment in order to accomplish the objectives assigned by upper management. One objective that most leaders will face and can be difficult in the workplace is guiding an organization through the process of change. An effective way to promote success in this area is to gain commitment from employees (Conner, 1993). This can happen as leaders utilize acquired technical skills and work alongside followers to stay involved at each level of the organization. By doing so, followers know that the leader is in touch with the workings of the company. Additionally, it is crucial for leaders to clearly identify problems with current conditions before considering or communicating to followers about change. When it is time to communicate about it, a leader’s energy and stated desire to accomplish the change will affect employee opinion of that change (McCauley & Cook, 2012). Throughout this process a key attribute in counseling employees and resolving conflicts is the ability to listen (Kemp-Longmore, 2000). This skill is not only beneficial during times of change, but in everyday context.

While specific personal attributes of leaders alone do not ensure success, as believed in the early ‘great man’ theories of leadership, there are some specific, cross-cultural and minimum attributes for successful leaders (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). Many researchers are unsure if mankind have asked the right questions in studies of leadership (Hackman & Wageman, 2007). However, other scholars believe that simple practical skills make a significant difference in the lives of followers.

The most effective leaders behave in a consistent manner that focuses on the development and well-being of their followers. Behaviors such as expressing a caring attitude, teaching/mentoring/coaching whenever possible with the focus on developing their followers, establishing and articulating a clear vision, establishing and maintaining challenging but achievable standards, and inspiring followers to meet/exceed organizational goals are but a few of the relatively simple things effective leaders do. (Rogers, 2009, p.11).

Environmental Influences

Beyond conceptual and technical skills, a leader’s ability to lead a group to accomplish its work to its best ability is greatly influenced by environmental factors. Schaffer (2008) says that one way to affect an employee’s motivation is to look at factors affecting the employees’ environment and seek changes in that environment in order to improve performance. Northouse (2013) classifies these factors into two distinct categories: internal factors and external factors.

Internal Environmental Influences

There are several characteristics of an organization that can impact that organization’s success. Northouse (2013) describes these as internal environmental influences such as “…facilities, expertise of subordinates, and communication.” The workplace can have a major effect on employee morale. One author describes how a leader, when examining working conditions for an employee, may discover conditions, which have a positive effect on employee motivation, and others may have a negative effect on motivation, though the absence of these conditions will not necessarily result in an improvement in performance (Archibald, 1962).

Similarly, the attitudes and experiences of a leader’s subordinates can be tied to their level of trust in that leader. This trust is not only dependent on the leader’s ability and integrity, but also on their perceived level of support to their subordinates (Sharkie, 2009). Thus, if the subordinates think they know better how to run their workplaces, they may tune out the leader and break down communications.

Communication is a vital commodity in human relations. It is used to build trust from the observer’s emotional and moral perspective on a decision, though that trust can erode when the subordinates believe that leadership is withholding information, or not telling them the whole truth (Ferguson, 2007). Consequently, a leader who knows his or her subordinates is in a better position to anticipate employee resistance to change and can seek out ways to lower resistance levels before proposing the change (Bradt, 2008). Communication can also lower the tension during conflict. Conflict can exist between individuals or elements of the organization, and resolving these conflicts leads to better cooperation and teamwork (Cottringer, 2006). It is important to document the conditions of the conflict and the plan to improve performance, so that if the plan fails, the supervisor can review the thought process and help determine another alternative plan (Kemp-Longmore, 2000).

External Environmental Influences

Along with internal environmental influences, there are many variables external to an organization that also affects how that organization operates. Northouse (2013) describes these external factors as social, and political issues. In this day and age, global corporations must be tuned in to social and political issues affecting their multicultural workforce. Templer (2010) identifies the most important attribute for expatriate managers working in a foreign country as the ability to relate to nationals. Relationship skills were found to be so important that organizations should not choose managers based on technical skill alone, but also those with the ability to adapt and connect with the assigned followers in the foreign country. It is recommended that there be cross-cultural training to prevent the ethnocentric rejection of the expatriate manager. This can lead to a lower level of production for the team. For an organization to be successful, leaders must establish a trust relationship with employees even if that leader is from another country.

Some of the criticism of early trait theory was that it didn’t account for cultural differences in leadership style, and was primarily focused on Western, Male, Judeo-Christian, upper social class ethics and values (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). However, modern research on Emotional Intelligence, successful expatriate managers, and leaders in other countries and cultures have refuted these earlier objections (Den Hartog,, 1999; Kornør & Nordvik, 2004; Templer, 2010; Toor, 2009). These studies have identified many of the same leadership attributes in many different cultures. As verification to the multicultural application of leadership traits, the corresponding opposite traits have been found in failed leaders and toxic leaders in multiple cultures (Den Hartog,, 1999; Toor, 2009).

Ready for the Environment

Leaders can be exposed to a formative event, but not be ready to learn from the experience. A leader needs self-awareness and self-reflection in order to learn from experiences. Self-control is needed in order to redirect emotional tension and use it for good ends. Hardiness is another trait that stands out as a practical need for leaders to both survive and learn from momentous events. Uncertainty triggers momentous events and is a key ingredient in the development of leaders. It is this response to the unexpected that helps to shape and prepare a leader for the future (Olivares, 2011).

Leadership Traits

There is no singular meaning of the concept of leadership, however many have given us further insights over past, present, and future leadership components. “The concept of leadership or the “position” of a leader has existed since the beginning of mankind. Those with the greater skills, who are perceived as more intelligent or who possess a history of successful accomplishments, are viewed as the leader.” (Kosicek, Soni, & Sandbothe, 2012, p.50). Analysis of leadership, particularly of the traits of the leader themselves, started in the middle of the 19th century and dominated leadership research for almost 100 years (Zaccaro, 2007). “Of interest to scholars throughout the 20th century, the trait approach was one of the first systematic attempts to study leadership. In the early 20th century, leadership traits were studied to determine what made certain people great as leaders.” (Northouse, 2013, p.19). Trait Theory was widely discarded in the 1940’s and 1950’s because of the belief that leader traits and attributes failed to account for situational variances (Zaccaro, 2007). Even as early as 1944, there was significant disagreement over consistent traits of leaders (Coffin, 1944).

Although there are many variations of trait theory; the underlying theme and purpose is to identify specific personality traits of specific leaders, with the goal of this identification to teach and train additional individuals to become successful leaders. More recent studies have identified specific traits that can be identified in cross cultural situations (Den Hartog,, 1999). A general knowledge of leadership traits will easily pinpoint the very nature of a leader and his or her foundational character. “Early in the leadership scientific research tradition, traits were understood to be innate or heritable qualities of the individual” (Zaccaro, 2007, p.7). Just as positive combinations of leadership traits have been identified in several studies (Aditya and House, 1997; Anderson, 2011; Coffin, 1944; Den Hartog,, 1999; Zaccaro, 2007); correlating negative groups of leadership behavior’s have been identified as a ‘toxic triangle’ of behavior ( Den Hartog,, 1999; Toor, 2009). Table 1 lists some of the specific traits identified in the research; their identified opposite / negative attributes and the research that supports each of these identified traits.

Leader Trait Descriptions

Ellis’ (2013) research divides leaders into two basic groups, results or relationship driven. All 120 different leader attributes identified fell into one of four primary categories: results, trust, relationships, and emotional intelligence. Stogdill (1948) helped to identify the following as the top leadership traits: “intelligence, scholarship, dependability in exercising responsibilities, activities and social participation and socioeconomic status” (Esu & Inyang, 2010, para. 7). However, Posner’s (1990) research ranked honesty, competence, and forward-looking among the top leadership attributes.

However, Ellis suggests that leaders usually find an innate struggle between the two main categories previously mentioned, results and relationship. The goal therefore, is to obtain a healthy balance between the two rather than the typical polarized orientation found among leaders. Relationships are key and tend to be the glue sustaining talented people in the company. If there is a poor relationship between talented employee and an immediate supervisor, the employee will want to leave (Ellis, 2013). According to Dirks and Ferrin (2001), trust is a cornerstone of team dynamics just as it is in a supervisor-subordinate relationship. The likelihood of an employee developing trust in a teammate or supervisor stems not only from the leader’s perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity, but also from the employee’s likelihood to trust others (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Shooter et al., 2010). Another author further defines trust as not only dependent on the leader’s ability and integrity, but also on their perceived level of support to their subordinates (Sharkie, 2009).

Scott (2010) researched forty-four leader attributes and then reduced that number to eight dimensions by removing redundancies. These leader attributes are described as “supportive, charisma, intelligent, responsibility, vision, integrity, risk taking, and challenges tradition” (para. 18). The titles of the eight dimensions lend a simple definition for each category. A supportive leader is kind and cares for the needs of individuals being served. Charisma is that charm and likableness which attracts followers to a leader. Intelligence is needed on the part of leadership as followers need to trust the decision-making ability of that leader. Responsibility is described as mature and self-control as well as one who knows how to admit mistakes. Leaders are expected to have vision and be able to transmit it to followers in a clear and inspiring way. Integrity is a key component in leadership and comes down to honesty on all levels. Good leaders are also risk takers who are unconventional in the way of accomplishing goals even at personal risk. The final dimension of leadership pertains to challenging traditions and not being willing to settle for mediocrity (Scott, 2010).

Intelligence and Technical Competence

The leader’s technical ability was found to be the most influential factor in developing trust. The second most influential factor was benevolence, followed by interpersonal skills, and integrity. This research agrees with previous studies in that the attributes of a leader’s character is important if trust is to be established in a leader-follower relationship (Shooter et al., 2012). “In the leadership literature, characteristics such as honesty and intelligence are important across the board” (Scott, 2013, p.42). Those with the greater skills, who are perceived as more intelligent or who possess a history of successful accomplishments, are viewed as the leader” (Kosicek et al., 2012, p.50).

Integrity and Honesty

An authentic leader is self-aware, and guided by a set of values, or high moral standards; is viewed as honest and as possessing integrity demonstrated through transparency in their actions, resulting in fair and balanced decisions, or ‘doing “what is right and fair” for’ both ‘the leader and their followers’ (Lloyd-Walker & Walker, 2011, p.383). One of the few attributes to appear high in the list of attributes of every research was honest/integrity/moral behavior (Aditya and House, 1997; Anderson, 2011; Atwater & Yammarino, 1993; Coffin, 1944; Zaccaro, 2007). In studies of destructive and negative leadership these traits were verified by their opposites appearing the study of negative leadership. As expected, dishonesty is one of the most significant items on the list of destructive attributes (Den Hartog et al., 1999; Toor, 2009).

Emotional Intelligence

More recent research has quantified additional traits that were described in a broad way in earlier research. Goleman described these attributes as “Emotional Intelligence” (Goleman, 1999). Goleman’s research has found that these specific leader attributes are twice as important as technical competence in organizational leadership (Goleman, 1999). These attributes (Self-Awareness, Self Regulation, Motivation, Empathy, and Social Skills) allow the leader to be more in touch with the group and gain greater co-operation within the group (Goleman, 1999). Several other studies on leadership attributes and traits identified similar competencies that are found in effective leaders (Coffin, 1944; Den Hartog et al., 1999; Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991; Kornør & Nordvik, 2004). These attributes have been identified across a wide range of cultures, organizations, and leadership styles (Den Hartog et al., 1999; Kornør & Nordvik, 2004; Toor, 2009).

Five-Factor Personality Model and Leadership

The ‘Big Five’ Personality traits, identified in 1961 by Tupes and Christal can help identify personality traits that will make successful leaders (Judge, 2000). These five personality dimensions (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Adjustment and Openness to Experience) have been clearly linked to successful leaders (Judge, 2000). For example, individuals with a high emotional adjustment score are self-confident and can be transformational leaders; high extraversion scores can be correlated to characteristics of charismatic leaders (Judge, 2000). Openness to Experience, the only ‘Big Five’ dimension that has been tied to intelligence, can also build technical competence, which has been correlated to successful leaders (Judge, 2000; Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991).


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