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Leader's Traits, Functions and Behaviors

1.      Introduction


Leadership is increasingly important in contemporary organizations as effective leaders can lead to organizational success with their visions.  As Shackleton (cited in Rosenfeld and Wilson, 1999) notes, leaders can influence the behavior of others directly or can do so through the context of a group or the wider organization.  This conforms to Schermerhorn・s (1996) definition of leadership as .the process of inspiring others to work hard to accomplish important tasks・.  Hence, successful leaders must have the ability to builds commitments and enthusiasm from their followers through motivation, communication, interpersonal relations, teamwork, and group dynamics (Schermerhorn, 1996).


Many researches and studies have tried to find out the common features and abilities that are associated with successful leaders, yet it is controversy due to different findings and belief.  Jago (cited in Wu, 2003) proposes a framework that organizes leadership theories based on each theory's focus and approach.  According to Jago, .focus・ refers to whether leadership is viewed as a set of traits or as a set of actions.  Theories focus on traits see leaders as having certain innate or inherent personality traits that distinguish them from non-leaders.  These personality traits are supposed to be relatively stable and enduring.  Theories focus on behavior see leadership as observable actions of the leader instead of personality traits.  Mullins (1996) argues that leadership can also be exercised as a characteristic of certain position.  Therefore, the word .leadership・ is sometimes used as if it were an attribute of personality, sometimes as if it were a characteristic of certain positions within an organization, and sometimes as an aspect of behavior.


2.      Leadership as an attribute of personality


Personality or trait approach is the earliest way in which researchers have looked at leadership.  It is to identify a group with leaders and followers and test for their differences based on a set of selected trait measures.  Drucker (cited in Mullins, 1996) believes that leadership cannot be created or promoted, and it cannot be taught or learned.  Hence, this approach assumes that leaders are born and not made (Mullins, 1996).  Schermerhorn (1996) argues that personal trait is a relatively stable and enduring personal characteristic so leaders are characterized by an identifiable set of personality and cognitive traits.  


The personality approach also assumes that there is a universal formula of the traits or behavior applicable to any business environment, which makes an effective leader discernibly different from other executives (Wu, 2003).  In other words, the universal approach assumes that there is .one best way・ to lead in all situations.  The attention focuses on the person in the job and not on the job itself (Mullins, 1996).  Consequently, individual is more important than the situation if one can identify the distinguishing characteristics of successful leaders (Handy, 1999).


There are many researches and studies about personal traits.  According to Barton and Martin (1998), personality traits are distinctive internal qualities or characteristics of an individual.  Most studies singled out traits as in Figure 1, yet this list is not exhaustive.





l           Conceptual ability in solving complex and abstract problems.

l           Sound professional knowledge, technical and task competence.

l           Understanding of followers and their needs.

l           Organizational ability and capacity to motivate people.

l           Interpersonal skills, sociability and socioeconomic position.

l           Independence and inventiveness, the capacity to perceive a need for action and the urge to do it.

l           Eagerness to accept responsibility and need for achievement.

l           Forward-looking and inspiring.

l           Dominance, extroversion and originality.

l           Decisiveness, courage and resolution.

l           Appears to correlate quite well with age.

l           Implies self-confidence, reasonably high self-ratings on competence and aspiration levels, and on perceived ultimate occupational level in society.

l           Assertiveness, adaptability and flexibility.

l           Integrity with a total commitment to the highest personal and professional standards.


Figure 1: Some traits examples

(Source: Barton and Martin, 1998; Gardner cited in Doyle and Smith, 2001; Kirkpatrick and Locke cited in Schermerhorn, 1996; Handy, 1999; Khera, 2003)


However, there are strong arguments on this approach.  For example, Mullins (1996) argues that it is very subjective to determine good and successful leaders; and it is difficult to agree on the most important traits so that the list tends to be very long.  Other arguments include Stogdill (cited in Mendez-Morse, 1992) who concluded that such a narrow characterization of leadership traits is insufficient.  A person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits.  Stogdill (cited in Chemers, 2000) also argues that although individual differences were certainly important in identifying emergent or effective leaders, the great diversity of situations in which leaders functioned made it unlikely that any one trait would be a universal predictor.


Wright (cited in Doyle and Smith, 2001) also holds the same views and comments that others found no differences between leaders and followers with respect to these characteristics, or even found people who possessed them were less likely to become leaders.  The possession of all the traits becomes an impossible ideal.  Therefore, the traits are so ill-defined as to be useless in practice.  The attempts to isolate specific individual traits led to the conclusion that no single characteristic can distinguish leaders from non-leaders (Mendez-Morse, 1992). 


Handy (1999) sees that trait theories imply an elite officer corps of managerial talent who has inherited or acquired the requisite characteristics (Handy, 1999).  Even if there are certain inborn qualities which make for a good leader, Mullins (1996) and Corbett (2001) views that these natural talents can be learned and developed.  Mullins (1996) argues that even if leadership is something of an art, it still requires the application of special skills and techniques.  These traits are thus essential to effective leadership since developing these characteristics will improve a leader・s ability to employ the principles of leadership.


Khera (2003) holds a different view and argues that the qualities assumption does not form a good basis for leadership training programs as the inborn qualities are difficult to transfer.  But Khera (2003) admits that it does have other uses.  First, it reminds that natural potential for leadership varies in individuals.  Secondly, many of us need the language of qualities to transfer our knowledge of a person's leadership ability to someone else.  Finally, this approach emphasizes the importance of what the leader is as a person.


3.      Leadership as a characteristic of certain position


By definition, leadership is the .position or function・ for .the period during which a person occupies the position of leader・ (The Collins English Dictionary, 2000).  The importance of this approach is that leadership resides in the function.  Krech et al (cited in Mullins, 1996) identify 14 functions served by leadership position as executive, planner, policy-maker, expert, external group representative, controller of internal relations, purveyor of rewards and punishment, arbitrator and mediator, examplar, symbol of the group, substitute for individual responsibility, ideologist, father figure, and scapegoat.


Position approach believes that the skills of leadership can be learnt, developed and perfected (Mullins, 1996).  Kotter (cited in Mullins, 1996) argues that successful companies do not wait for leaders to come along.  Rather, they actively seek out people with leadership potential with careful selection, nurturing and encouragement, then expose them to career experiences designed to develop that potential.  Attention of this approach is therefore focused on the functions and responsibilities of leadership, what the leader actually does and the nature of the group (Mullins, 1996).


Rosenfeld and Wilson (1999) argue that this approach concerns the exercise of power to some degree.  It is because position power comes from the manager・s formal authority which has been granted to the position which the manager holds in the facility (Ninemeier, 2001).  Employees generally accept position power as being legitimate, and therefore they usually comply with the work-related directives issued by the manager. Whereas anyone holding a managerial position theoretically has this power, how well it is used will vary from one person to the next (Schermerhon, 1996). 


French and Raven (Schermerhorn, 1996) divide the sources of power into two major categories: those based in the manager・s position of authority (rewards, coercion and legitimacy) and those based in the manager as a person (expertise and reference).  Bartol and Martin (1998) argue that there are different relationship between a leader・s use of the different sources of power and likely subordinate reactions.  As shown in Figure 2, expert power and referent power are most likely to lead to subordinate commitment; legitimate power, information power, and reward power tend to result in compliance; the use of coercive power has a strong tendency to provoke resistance in subordinates.



Likely subordinate reaction to power source





Power source







Figure 2: Major sources of leader power and likely subordinate reactions

(Source: Bartol and Martin, 1998, p 416)


Doyle and Smith (2001) view that having formal authority is both a resource and a constraint.  They argue that the position approach can bring access to systems and resources, yet it also carries a set of expectations that can be quite unrealistic in times of crisis.  Leaders having formal authority are not enough, they must also rely in large part on informal authority, for example personal qualities and actions.  They may be trusted, respected for their expertise, or followed because of their ability to persuade (Doyle and Smith, 2001).  Therefore, effective managers must acquire and use power from both sources from French and Raven when leading others in the work setting. 


Ninemeier (2001) argues that working in isolation does not enhance power; being recognized for one・s efforts can, for example delegation.  Hence, Adair・s (cited in Mullins, 1996) concluded that the effectiveness of the leader is dependent upon the interaction of the group work.  Adair suggests that the leader need to achieve either or all of the following three functions.  First of all, the leaders must aware of what is going on in groups, the group process or underlying behavior, and the actual content of discussion.  Secondly, the leaders must understand and know a particular function is required.  Finally, the leaders must possess the skill to do it effectively, which can usually be judged by whether the group responds or changes course.


4.      Leadership as an aspect of behavior


Behaviorists maintain that a universally applicable set of leadership characteristics can be defined which concentrate on the behaviors which leaders display.  Researches indicate that the kinds of behavior of people in leadership positions have great influences on group performance.  Therefore, attention is drawn to range of possible managerial behavior and importance of leadership style (Mullins, 1996).  The most influential studies and researches are Ohio State studies and University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.


Ohio State studies


The studies reveal that a major portion of the variability in leader behavior could be explained by two major clusters: Consideration (concern for people) and Initiating Structure (concern for task).  Chemers (2000) argues that concern for people reflects leader intentions to support positive group morale and follower satisfaction; while concern for task focuses on building a structure for task accomplishment.  Schermerhorn (1996) has summarized the major features of the two behaviors (Figure 3):


Concern for people

Concern for task

l           Acts warm and supportive toward followers.

l           Develops social rapport with followers.

l           Respects the feelings of followers.

l           Is sensitive to followers・ needs.

l           Shows trust in followers.

l           Plans and defines work to be done.

l           Assigns task responsibilities.

l           Sets clear work standards.

l           Urges task completion.

l           Monitors performance results.


Figure 3: People and task concern

(Source: Schermerhorn, 1996)


A high Consideration high Initiating Structure style appears to be generally more effective in terms of subordinate satisfaction and group performance, but Mullins (1996) warns that the evidence is not conclusive and much seems to depend upon situational factors.  Although the studies were found reliably in ratings of leader behavior across a wide range of settings, it is often argued that Consideration and Initiating Structure are sometimes but not always predictive of group performance (Chemers, 2000).  Consequently, some balance is needed between Consideration and Initiating Structure in order to satisfy both individual needs and organizational goals. 


University of Michigan studies


The research found that effective supervisors (measured along dimensions of group morale, productivity and cost reduction) appear to display four common characteristics as shown in Figure 4.



Leader・s behaviors

Concern for task

Leaders emphasize the achievement of concrete objectives.  Look for high levels of productivity, and ways to organize people and activities in order to meet those objectives.

Concern for people

Leaders look upon their followers as people - their needs, interests, problems, development and so on.  They are not simply units of production or means to an end.

Directive leadership

This style is characterized by leaders taking decisions for others - and expecting followers or subordinates to follow instructions.

Participative leadership

Leaders try to share decision-making with others


Figure 4: Four Common Characteristics of Michigan Research

(Source: Doyle and Smith, 2001)


Likert (cited in Mullins, 1996) has summarized the findings and used the terms employee-centered and production-centered supervisors.  This has become a very popular activity within management training.  The best known is Blake and Mouton・s Managerial Grid.  Various schemes are appeared and designed to diagnose and develop people・s style of working.  Handy (1999) argues that there are good indications a supportive style of management will lead to a higher degree of contentment and to greater involvement with the work group.  This is not necessarily the cause of higher productivity but it is a good base to build on. 


Wu (2003) warns that the behavioral approach has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand, this approach focuses on observable actions of the leader in order to determine if the leader's main concern is for production or for people.  This provides a more reliable method for studying leadership than the trait approach.  On the other hand, this approach still adopts the universal approach.  It aims at identifying the most effective leadership style for all situations, which is not supported by evidence in real organizations.  


The implications


The assumption behind these theories is that employees will work harder and more effectively for managers who employ given styles of leadership than they will for managers who employ other styles.  Mullins (1996) argues that both the Ohio State studies and the University of Michigan studies appear to support the idea that there is no single behavioral category of leadership which is superior.  There are many types of leadership behavior, overall effectiveness is clearly dependent on more than style alone (Handy, 1999).


5.      The uses of leadership


The common problem of the personality, positional and behavioral leadership is the assumption of universal and narrow applications.  It is cautious to note that there are many situational factors that would affect the use of effective leadership.  For example, it might include characteristics of subordinates, the task (structured versus unstructured), organizational policy and climate, behaviors of the managers・ superiors and peers, the leader・s own characteristics and the subordinates・ responses (Corbett, 2001).  Therefore, an interactive perspective on leadership suggests a more sophisticated approach is needed to understand the relationship between leadership and performance.


Personality is about inborn while position is legitimate so it seems managers can only influence on the effectiveness of their leadership style through the choice of behavior.  According to Tannenbaum and Schmidt (cited in Barton and Martin, 1998), managers in deciding which leader behavior pattern to adopt need to consider three forces.  They are the forces within themselves (such as comfort level with the various alternatives), the forces within subordinates (such as readiness to assume responsibility), and the forces within the situation (such as time pressures).  Tannenbaum and Schmidt advise that in the long run managers should attempt to move from task-centered toward the subordinate-centered.  It is because such leader behavior has a higher potential for increasing employee motivation, decision quality, team-work, morale, and employee development.


However, Chemers (2000) argues that the apparent complexity of research findings and theoretical perspectives in the field of leadership might be reduced if one examined these literatures by focusing on this major function that leaders need to fulfill to be successful.  Chemers believes that there should be three such functions: image management, relationship development and resource deployment.  By means of image management, a leader must build credibility in the legitimacy of his or her authority by projecting an image that arouses feelings of trust in followers.  By means of relationship development, a leader must develop relationships with subordinates that enable those subordinates to move toward individual and collective goal attainment.  By means of resource deployment, leaders must effectively use the knowledge, skills, and material resources present within their group to accomplish the group・s mission.  The findings of Chemers suggest that leaders who are in a good fit with their leadership situation are more confident and more of them perform at high levels.


Put Chemers・ arguments in other way, effective leaders should achieve all the personality (resource deployment), position (image management) and behavior (relationship development) characteristics as shown in Figure 5.


Through the characteristics of position, leaders must first establish the legitimacy of their authority by appearing competent and trustworthy to their followers.  Next, through the aspects of behaviors, leaders must coach, guide, and support their followers in a way that allows the followers to contribute to group goal attainment while satisfying their own personal needs and goals.  Finally, through the attributes of personality, effective leaders must use the skills and abilities possessed by themselves with the companies・ resources to accomplish the group・s mission.  It implies that effective leadership requires an executive to use all mentioned leadership styles that match the context.  


Characteristic of Position

Aspect of Behaviors

Attribute of Personality

Figure 5: Application of Chemers・ theory


6.      Conclusion


Research into the characteristics of effective leaders has generated three contrasting theories: personal or trait approach, position approach and behavioral approach.  Each of these theories seems to contain some elements of truth, yet they are always failed in the final analysis to explain enough of the difference between effective and ineffective leadership to be generally useful in a variety of situations.


The universal applications of these theories contend that there is one best way of exercising leadership and leaders share an identifiable set of common attributes.  However, the fact shows that leaders are discernibly different from other individuals so the generic set of leadership traits, functions and behaviors is not applicable to all situations.  It also implies that style alone is not the answer to effective leadership.  Rather, the most important is the leaders・ ability to interact between themselves, group members and the situation.  It is also about a flexibility of approach with diagnostic ability and the realization that the most effective form of leadership is a product of the total leadership situation.


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