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Trait and Skills Approaches to Leadership


Leadership is a growing issue among many companies due to the high value which successful leaders can bring to an organization. Many people would like to know what defines an individual as a good leader. For decades, researchers have been studying the topic, resulting in a great deal of insight and knowledge. Leadership is known as having several different approaches to how the ability to lead can be acquired. Two examples that contrast with each other by design is the Trait and Skills Approaches to Leadership. The trait approach portrays a leader as being born with a particular set of characteristics or traits which predetermines the individual to be a leader. The Skills Approach suggests the contrary by insinuating the assertion of how a person may learn and improve through time and experience. Given the opposing core meaning, they do have several overlapping definitions which are also aligned.

Literature Review

Personal characteristics have been considered a key factor in deciding an individual’s ability to lead, going back to early civilizations. As far back as the sixth century, a Chinese scholar Lao Tzu wrote about effective leadership traits (Bennett & Bennett III, 2019). Desire, emotional stability, integrity, patience, and honesty, among others, have been generally correlated with leadership qualities. Such qualities were thought to characterize good leaders in the early period of leadership studies. Researchers sought to identify the attributes which led to leaders’ effectiveness and development within organizations. The first research into empirical leadership was undertaken in 1904 when Scholars studied schoolchildren and tried to classify the traits which separated leaders from non-leaders. Congeniality, verbal fluency, intellect, compassion, low emotional expression, vibrancy, accomplishment, patience, wisdom, initiative, self-confidence, responsibility, co-operation, empathy, popularity, courage, and sociability qualities define young leaders.

These preliminary studies advanced the notion which puts a claim on some personal characteristics as being ingrained in leaders and differentiating them from non-leaders; they also endorsed the view by confirming these attributes as being defined and evaluated. From 1959 to 2004, several other research studies have collected various lists of leadership characteristics. A core list of traits emerged from all of these lists, including intelligence, self-confidence, ambition, honesty, and sociability. Nevertheless, research on leadership traits has continued since then, and there has been a revival in an evolved form and characteristics. These features are reflected in the behavior patterns which leadership displays.

Consideration of these attributes allows one to understand better individual types of leadership and how different behaviors contribute to successful leadership. A brief examination of effective leaders shows, while some attributes can overlap, key characteristics, abilities, and styles are different for each individual in several ways. Leadership characteristics have been researched to determine what makes certain people better leaders. The theory of traits, also known as “great man” theories, focuses on recognizing the inherent characteristics and features of great social, political, and military leaders (Northouse, 2019). It was assumed that people were born with these characteristics, which according to them, they were possessed only by the great people,

Comparison of Trait and Skills Approaches to Leadership

The Trait Approach to Leadership has been one of the initial theories of leadership. While it is not a completely formulated model with well-developed theories, the trait approach was the foundation of most earlier leadership research. The approach focuses on leaders’ personal qualities (or characteristics), like physical and personality features, competencies, and values (Mango, 2018). It approaches leadership exclusively from the point of view of the individual leader. The approach implies how features generate patterns of behavior that are consistent across situations (Price, 2017). In other words, leadership characteristics are known to be the enduring attributes that a person is born with and which remain relatively constant over time.

On the other hand, the Skills Approach emphasizes knowledge and skills and argues how the features required for efficient leadership may be acquired through learning and can be developed. Many individuals have leadership abilities, which could be strengthened by training and experiences to become more successful leaders (Grunberg et al., 2019). Exposure, training, experience, and participation in some initiatives may prepare individuals for leadership roles.

According to the Trait Approach to Leadership Model, the expression “Born to Lead” is something we learn when discussing an effective leader. The phrase portrays a successful leader as having a natural instinctive power to influence people to a certain way of seeing things or obtaining a particular outcome. The Trait Model is a theory that depends on such principle. The concept presents a true leader as one who possesses a collection of characteristics that would identify him as a leader. There is a problem with this idea though because scholars in the 20th century have not been able to come up with a collection of conclusive characteristics of leadership. Several traits overlap between various studies over different time frames, but no particular trait has been shown across the board to be a proven attribute needed in molding a leader. Nevertheless, the researchers were able to ascertain five main features out of the expanded list, and which are; fundamental to leadership skills. Intelligence, trust in yourself, commitment, integrity, and sociability (Gottfredson & Reina, 2020). To be efficient, each of these traits needs to be balanced.

However, the Skills Approach to Leadership Model is distinctive because it postulates the development of the necessary skills. It implies how leadership qualities may grow and develop throughout a person’s career. They could be fine-tuned with active attention and intentional effort on the person and indirectly through career experience. Individuals who want to increase their leadership skills should do so based on the skills Approach to the Leadership model. There are two main approaches for evaluating and analyzing leadership qualities. A three-skills approach and a more dynamic leadership skills approach.

The trait approach model puts the claim on leaders appearing to have greater intellect than non-leaders. There must be a compromise with the supporters, nevertheless, to prevent a negative effect. There can be a gap if a leader is unable to interact and identify with supporters. If the followers feel like they are being spoken to or the discussion is over their heads, they will lose faith in their ability to participate and they will shut down. The same applies to the self-confidence trait. To influence others, a leader needs to demonstrate confidence in their very own skills and abilities. If the confidence appears to the supporters as arrogance, then it may also lead to unfavorable results. As Northouse (2019) described, determination is the willingness to do something and includes effort, dedication, supremacy, and motivation.

Having a leader taking proactive action towards an objective is encouraging and can motivate the team to work hard to accomplish their part. Nevertheless, If the leader displays far too much superiority and desire and becomes overbearing and dominant, it can reverse productivity and influence. Sociability and honesty are the last two of the five main features. Sociability is a leader’s tendency to pursue pleasurable social connections. Looking for a way to communicate with the team or followers helps create a bond and shows the leader as caring about the result or the job to be done and about the individual. If this is taken too far with a feeling of being too sensitive, it can also cause a negative impact, because the supporters may view it as being intrusive. Integrity is how genuine and trustworthy the individual is to his followers (Northouse, 2019). An anomaly with someone being too trusting is less likely to take place. An honest evaluation or perspective could be considered “too honest” if the communication is blunt and potentially hurtful or rude.

On the other hand, the skills model focuses on the importance of leaders acquiring all three skills coming from the three skill-set models, depending on the level they are in the company’s hierarchy structure as well as their capabilities. Technical skills imply experience and knowledge in a particular field and the ability to use equipment and methods to achieve a particular mission. It is more of a technical skillset, essential while in the supervisory management phase and closer to the daily operation. For instance, if a manager wishes to support a team member, the technical experience and skill set would allow them to be of service to the group member.

Social skills, which is the ability to interact with people and know them, is the other skill. Analyzing people and understanding how to communicate effectively with them, particularly with different personalities which can be found in a company, is a very beneficial skill needed at all levels of management. Conceptual is yet another one of the skills, which is the ability to deal with ideas and principles. It has more to do with management’s strategic side, which is more important at the top management or executive level. The number of leaders who are setting up a strategic plan for an organization must have less technological and more intellectual capability and the reverse at the supervisory level (Northhouse, 2019). Because every level of management is dealing with individuals, human skill is therefore needed in everything.

The Trait and personality theory affirm how the overall concept of personality may comprise of five factors. It is possible to find how these factors overlap with the five main traits listed earlier. The most popular of the Five is extraversion. Extroversion is the propensity to be social and assertive, which has some association with sociability and self-confidence. Those who appear to be more assertive are usually optimistic individuals. The determination aspect reflects the ability to have the job done, which would need one to be organized and controlled. The final personality trait is compassion, which is the ability to embrace, affirm, trust, and nurture.

The skills approach to the leadership model is defined as a capacity model because it explores the connection between a leader’s knowledge and skills. The model has five components: competencies, human qualities, leadership outputs, work experiences, and environmental impacts. The core competencies are the primary factors that truly account for successful performance; the ability to solve problems, problem-solving abilities, Skills in social judgment and awareness. Some people may have characteristics that fit these abilities, making the learning process a little simpler and fine-tuning them to be a bit easier. However, the idea behind this strategy is to make sure it does not discourage someone from making an effort to push oneself in exploring more and subject oneself to conditions that would further improve those skills. The skills model is perceived as the more nuanced and layered methodology for measuring leaders. Research teams have seen how all of these factors play a role in leadership abilities and their efficacy in the organization by diving into the history, experiences, and other influences of an individual. The final part of the skills approach concerns conceptual skills.

A leader who has leadership abilities is comfortable communicating about the corporation’s principles and the complexity involved. Conceptual skills are related to the intellectual work of molding the context of organizational or policy issues – understanding what an organization stands for and where it is or where it is headed (Northouse, 2019). Unlike the “great man” approach, which assumes for leadership is intended for the talented few, the skilled approach indicates how most people have the leadership capacity. If individuals can learn from experience, they would not only become leaders, but they would be successful in their careers too.

Benefits and Drawbacks

There are several benefits and drawbacks concerning the traits approach to the leadership model. The strengths include the fact in which individuals can see the people who lead them as gifted persons, and the trait approach very well fulfills this requirement. Second, trait evaluation procedures can be used for superiors and managers with valuable information about their strengths and weaknesses and opportunities to enhance their overall leadership success. The weaknesses include the inability to recognize a definitive list of leadership attributes through the trait approach. A significant drawback of the approach is how the model focuses solely on the leader. Another major vulnerability encountered is its inability to take situations into account (Northouse, 2019). This means it is most likely for an individual with specific features which enable them to become leaders in one area, might fail them in the other area.

The skills approach also has established strengths and weaknesses. Defining leadership in the context of skills gives access to everyone who might want to take a role in the leadership position, thus making it a benefit. Second, unlike personality traits, skills are qualifications that can be acquired or established by individuals. When leadership is defined as a collection of skills, it turns into a method that individuals can learn and practice to enhance their job performance. However, the established weaknesses include the fact that the skills approach’s scope continues to stretch beyond leadership limits. The model is deficient in predictive value (Sreena & Ilankumaran, 2018). It does not clearly explain how differences influence success in social judgment and problem-solving abilities; the model may be flawed since it does not illustrate how skills contribute to leadership’s successful performance.

Application of the Trait and Skills Theories

Both trait and skills leadership theories can be applied in different ways and different situations as well. The trait model application can include: First, identifying and comparing the qualities a person has and utilizing the trait measuring capability in assessing an individual’s characteristics. Second, comparing the qualities exhibited by leaders and using evaluations in assessing who has the necessary leadership qualities. Third, companies can utilize personality assessment tools in identifying how people will fit in their respective organizations. These assessments assist in both selecting the right candidates and also promoting organizational efficiency. Fourth, information regarding this trait could indicate areas in which employees’ personality traits are beneficial to the company. Fifth, the trait approach could be used for personal knowledge and growth by evaluating strengths and weaknesses to understand their characteristics better. Sixth, using personality assessments and other similar evaluations, one may gain insight into the individual’s existing skills concerning certain qualities which are considered essential for leadership. Seventh, one can also use subjective evaluation tests to help one understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Eighth, the analyzed evaluation results help determine careers or personal growth requirements which will fit an individual’s personality, which ends up offering a higher chance of success for the person. Ninth, the assessment outcomes allow an individual to comprehend good traits which a person ought to have if they want to become leaders. Tenth, by using the evaluation outcomes, one may gain a better understanding of how his or her trait-based personality influences those in the organization (Owen, 2015). Eleventh, the trait approach will also help find areas where one might need more training to boost their standard.

As for the skills model application, it is easy for an individual to use the features of the skills identified in this approach to make a comparative self-assessment to identify his or her strengths and weaknesses. To achieve this, one will have to use these three skills; technological, human, and conceptual. The skill model evaluation offers insight into one’s leadership competencies, and the individual may undertake extensive training to strengthen his or her leadership effectiveness based on the growth areas defined. There are also several questionnaires and methods available to evaluate the abilities of individuals. The skills approach can be used for professional knowledge and growth because it offers a road map for achieving successful leadership.

Trait and skills models help individuals to make greater efforts in many areas. If an individual notices they are not good at solving problems, they will concentrate on the area and learn the skills required to get better (Spisak, O’Brien, Nicholson & van, 2015). The approach also informs people on what they need to acquire in terms of expertise. Because of their feasibility, many people might not be able to differentiate them.

Criticism of Trait and Skills Approaches

The Trait theory is criticized for its generalization since it does not acknowledge evolution of abilities or characteristics. It also uses group outcomes to assess individuals, leading people to look different when they are judged against others. The traits are subjective and defined by either psychologist, who may have a different interpretation of the traits.

The skills theory on the other side has also attracted some critique too: its scope seems to stretch beyond the limits of leadership, making it much more general or less specific. The mode is lacking in predictive power and does not illustrate how skills contribute to successful leadership (Pendleton & Furnham, 2016). The skills model contains individual characteristics which are trait-like, which, according to scholars, makes the model appear as if it depends on the trait model, making its features look like copyright.


Both the trait and skills approach to leadership refers to a person’s natural birth attributes or characteristics. Each individual’s aspect makes them exceptional and probably more appropriate for one type of role over the other. The difference is about how the skills approach often makes it a step further to reflect on individuals’ willingness to use their experiences, expertise, and acquired abilities to improve their ability to lead. The trait approach is very narrow because it does not consider the situation following the individual characteristics to determine whether the attributes are as successful across all situations. It assumes if a leader has specific features, he or she will be good. If the person wants to become a more successful and powerful leader, the skills approach places the power in their hands so they can draw on their own experiences to learn and improve. Those who take the initiative and make some effort are not constrained to remain the way they were before. According to the trait approach theory, just because an individual was not “born to be a leader” does not imply they cannot progress to become effective in leadership.

In one way or the other, the two approach models clash. However, it is worth noting both have leadership-related qualities which could work very well if an individual takes the initiative to adhere to them. Therefore, it is advisable to pursue both strategies to make diversification simpler and become an efficient and prosperous leader. Individuals who may derive attributes from both models are very likely to succeed in leadership positions.


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