Effective leader traits

Traits are important.  It drives behavior and affect perceptions.  But which traits contribute to effective leadership?

Traits refers to individual attributes like personality, temperament, values, motives and needs.  Some of these traits can be developed, while others are to some extend inherited.

The importance of each trait depends on the situation.  The characteristics of the leader must be relevant to the needs and goals of followers.

Lets look at the traits that contribute to effective leadership.

Personality and temperament

Personality traits and temperament are stable dispositions to behave in a certain way, for example extraversion, emotional stability and energy levels.

Physical stamina and stress tolerance

Physical stamina and stress tolerance help leaders cope with the hectic pace, unrelenting demands and long hours.  Effective problem solving requires the ability to stay focussed, remain calm and provide confident, decisive direction in time of crisis.  This is especially important when leaders are confronted with difficult situations or under pressure to make important decisions without adequate information.

Emotional stability and maturity

Emotional mature leaders knows their strengths and weaknesses and they are oriented towards self-improvement.  They have self-control and are less self-centred and defensive.  This helps them to create cooperative relationships with others.

Narcissism refers to a personality disorder that involves an extreme need for power, weak self-control and no concern for the welfare of others.  They surround themselves with followers who are uncritical and loyal.  They make decisions without gathering adequate information or listening to advice.  They undertake grandiose projects without proper analysis to glorify themselves.  The projects tend to be risky and unrealistic. They ignore negative information when projects are not going well, and refuse to admit responsibility when projects fail. They are also unable to plan for orderly succession of leadership because they see themselves as indispensable and cling to power.


Values are internalized attitudes about right and wrong, ethical and unethical.  Examples include fairness, honesty, loyalty

Personal integrity

Leaders must be honest, ethical and trustworthy.

  • Honesty  – Leaders lose credibility if they lie or make distorted claims.
  • Trustworthiness – Leaders will not get loyalty, cooperation and support from others if they are seen as untrustworthy.
  • Keep promises – People are reluctant to negotiate agreements with leaders that do not keep promises.
  • Dependable – People must know that they can depend on their leader.  Leaders must be there to provide support when needed, and back followers when they encounter difficult situations in their work
  • Responsibility towards followers – Leaders lose the trust of followers if they exploit or manipulate followers for their own gain.
  • Cooperation – followers must know that their leader is working with them
  • Discretion – People will not pass on important but sensitive information if the leader cannot keep a secret.
  • Practice what you preach – A leader’s behaviour must be consistent with values articulated to followers.
  • Take responsibility for actions and decisions, and make proposals without hesitation.
  • Positive attitude towards authority figures

Motives and needs

Motives and needs refers to a desire for a particular stimulus or experience.  We distinguish between physiological needs (like hunger and thirst) and social needs (like a need for power, independence and achievement)


Without self-confidence, a leader is less likely to make influence attempts and any influence attempts are less likely to be successful.

Leaders with self-confidence sets challenging goals, attempt difficult tasks and take initiative to solve problems.  They also persevere despite setbacks, and their optimism and determination increase commitment and support from others.  Self-confidence also give followers the perception that the leader has the knowledge and courage to deal with a crisis effectively.

Excessive self-confidence can cause leaders to make rash decisions, deny that a plan is flawed and take excessive risk.  Leaders with excessive self-confidence can also be arrogant, autocratic and intolerant of descending viewpoints which make it difficult to create cooperative relationships with people not dependant on the leader’s expertise.

Internal locus of control

People with an external locus of control believe that events are determined by chance or fate and they can do little to improve their lives

People with an internal locus of control believe they are masters of their own destiny.  They have a future-oriented perspective and plan proactively.  They actively seek information, accept responsibility, initiate action rather than waiting for things to happen and take steps to overcome obstacles.  They have more confidence in their ability to influence people and they are more likely to use persuasion rather than manipulative influence tactics. They learn from their mistakes rather than dismissing them as bad luck.  Leaders with an internal locus of control are more flexible, adaptive and innovative.  They have high work standards and a strong efficiency orientation

Socialized power motivation

People with a strong need for power seek positions of authority.  Without this need, it is unlikely for a person to organise and direct group activities or negotiate agreements.  Power motivation is especially relevant for advancement to higher levels of management in large organisations.

So, a strong need for power is desirable, but leader effectiveness also depends on how this need is expressed to influence others.  A socialized power motivation is more effective than a personalised power motivation

A leader with a personalised power motivation, use power to satisfy their own selfish need for esteem and status.  They restrict access to information, use reward and punishment to manipulate, exploit and control followers.  The leader takes all decisions alone and assistance and advice to followers are done in a way that demonstrate personal superiority and keep the followers dependent and weak. The end result is that followers will not deal with problems without explicit instruction from their leader.  Loyalty is towards the leader rather than the organisation, and when the leader leaves there is disorder and a breakdown in team spirit.

A leader with a socialized power motivation exercise power in a socially acceptable way and more for the benefit of others.  They are concerned for reputation of organisation and do not use power in a manipulative way.  They help others to develop their skills and be proud of belonging to the team.  They take advice from people with relevant expertise and help followers feel strong and responsible.  They also desire frequent and concrete feedback.  They have a long-term view and use their influence to build the organisation and make it successful.  These leaders create a clear organisational structure and use a participative leadership style (rather than being coercive and autocratic)

Achievement orientation

Leaders with a weak achievement orientation is not motivated to seek opportunities and set challenging objectives.  They also do not take initiative to discover problems and they avoid taking responsibility to solve problems.

Achievement orientation is a major success factor for owners of small businesses and a good predictor for advancement through lower levels of management.  Achievement oriented leaders have a strong drive to succeed, willingness to assume responsibility for solving task related problems and a strong concern for task objectives.  They derive satisfaction from accomplishing a difficult task.  They take initiative to find problems and solve them and they prefer solutions with moderate risk (rather than very high or very low risk solutions).  These leaders engage in task oriented behaviour like planning, setting challenging goals and realistic deadlines, develop action plans, organise the work and emphasize performance.  They also have a fairly low need for security.

A strong achievement orientation can also have a downside if the leader tries to accomplish everything alone for his own individual achievement, rather than the achievement of the team.  The strong achievement orientation must be combined with a socialized power motivation.

A leader with Type A personality syndrome where a strong achievement orientation is combined with a strong need for control, tend to have high expectations for themselves, are competitive and wants to come out ahead.  They are always rushed and are poor delegators and team players because they want to maintain control over every aspect of their work.  They are demanding, and intolerant of mistakes, impatient with delays and become hostile when they are unable to maintain control.  These leaders have difficulty maintaining cooperative relationships.

Need for affiliation

Effective leaders have a moderately low need for affiliation.

People with a strong need for affiliation want to be liked and accepted by others.  They want to work with friendly and cooperative people.  These leaders are primarily concerned with interpersonal relationships and will not allow work to interfere.  They tend to avoid conflicts or smooth them over rather than confronting them.  They avoid necessary but unpopular decisions and reward to gain approval rather than rewarding performance.  They also show favouritism when making assignments and allow exceptions to the rule.

Leaders with a very low need for affiliation is not concerned with being liked and accepted.  They are not sensitive to queues indicating rejection or hostility.  They are loners who lack the motivation to engage in social activities and build relationships.

Situational variables

A research study conducted at the American Telephone and Telegraph company (Bray, Campbell & Grant, 1974; Howard & Bray, 1990) found that advancement as a leader depends not only on the relevant personal qualities, but also on the opportunity to develop these qualities into competent leadership.

In other words, the company must encourage the development of leadership traits and skills. A company can do this by

  • Creating a job situation favourable to individual development
  • Providing skills training
  • Proving good mentors or role models
  • Giving challenging assignments with increased responsibility


Gary Yukl, Leadership in organisations.  Sixth Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005, Chapter 7

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *