Traits and Skills
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Trait and Skills Approaches to Leadership
Many people throughout history have admired the leadership of King David. He is quite the fascinating character, appealing to people from various backgrounds and in different seasons of life. Merida called David “Israel’s famous king” and recounts that “David slew giants, killed lions with his hands, conquered kingdoms, and nurtured sheep.” Clearly, he was a great leader. The Bible states in 1 Samuel 13:14 (NKJV) that David was “a man after [God’s] own heart.” As a modern-day believer reading this passage, one feels the yearning to be a man after God’s own heart, but the phrase raises a question. Does “after” mean that David’s heart followed the pattern of God’s heart or does it mean that David was pursuing God’s heart? The question is not merely theoretical; this is the foremost attribute God was seeking in a king for Israel. Modern leaders wrestle with similar questions. Are good leaders born or made? Is leadership a matter of nature or nurture? Is it possible to develop leadership? The trait and skills leadership theories attempt to answer these questions.
Northouse highlighted the credibility of the trait theory as one of its strengths. Northouse states that “the trait approach… …has a century of research to back it up” and “no other theory can boast of the breadth and depth of studies conducted on the trait approach.” Truninger et al. explained that people still commonly select leaders based on the assumption that “measurable psychological or biological characteristics… …predict behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes.” Perhaps those referenced sincerely believe they are making decisions based on the behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes, but not the traits. If so, how are they to gauge the likely outcomes without considering the traits?
Northouse calls the trait theory “intuitively appealing” and suggests that people have an innate understanding that leaders possess certain characteristics. If this is true, then followers will instinctively follow leaders who possess the necessary traits for leadership. Furthermore, those selecting leaders would have an inherent bias towards those candidates who have leadership traits.
Northouse explained the contrast between the trait and skills approaches by stating that while traits are “innate and largely fixed…, …skills… …can be learned and developed.” This is a particularly helpful perspective in organizations where longevity corresponds with leadership roles. If leadership is only a fixed set of skills, then many organizations have a substantial number of person-environment mismatches. If born leaders are limited to individual contributor roles and those incapable of leading are forced into leadership roles, then there is little hope for the organization’s success. However, Northouse’s explanation that leadership is “a process that people can study and practice to become better at performing… …makes leadership available to everyone.” Quinn drew attention to the need to develop leaders and how the skills approach is useful in meeting this need.
Phillips and Bullock found that once developed, leadership skills sometimes became permanent. Multiple study subjects reported this to be the case and Phillips & Bullock (2020) described these skills as having “become embedded into practice.” Another advantage of the skills approach to leadership is the transferability of the skills. A trait is, by definition, a largely fixed attribute. As leaders learn skills, they can make adjustments to the learned skill to apply it to different leadership contexts. Phillips and Bullock also found evidence of this in their research.
What, then, of King David being “a man after God’s own heart?” Perhaps the Hebrew scholars know best, but the phrase seems to refer to both a trait and skills. David exemplifies traits of boldness, courage, and passion from a young age, but also develops as a leader from watching sheep to possessing the requisite skills to lead a growing, and often tumultuous, kingdom. Much like God was looking for someone with a heart like His own who would pursue His heart, those promoting leaders today must also aim to strike a balance between traits and skills. The best leaders are not only equipped for the task at hand, but can also adapt and develop the necessary skills which will enable them to lead through circumstances beyond the horizon.
Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice. SAGE Publications.
Phillips, S., & Bullock, A. (2020). Longitudinal impact of Welsh clinical leadership fellowship. Leadership in Health Services, 33(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1108/LHS-06-2019-0033
Quinn, B. (2020). Using Benner’s model of clinical competency to promote nursing leadership. Nursing Management, 27(2), 33-41. https://doi.org/10.7748/nm.2020.e1911
Truninger, M., Ruderman, M. N., Clerkin, C., Fernandez, K. C., & Cancro, D. (in-press). Sounds like a leader: An ascription-actuality approach to examining leader emergence and effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101420