Looking for Leadership Traits

The elusive qualities of political leaders that can determine success.

Posted Feb 18, 2020

Everyone’s talking about leadership traits in this election cycle.  Candidates and the incumbent are variously described as opportunistic, idealistic, unrealistic, narcissistic, visionary, and even mean.  At this point, it’s not clear what traits our next president will have.

Photo by Ronda Darby on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ronda Darby on Unsplash

Choosing our leaders would be so much easier if we had a list of personal qualities that we know will create success.  Although everyone would probably agree we want leaders who are smart, visionary, kind, and inspirational, people can have those qualities and still not succeed as leaders.  

"Five Factor" research has provided a little more information about traits and leadership.  Researchers tell us that successful leaders tend to be Extraverted.  They also tend to be Conscientious, and they score low on Neuroticism.  But they aren’t necessarily nice—Agreeableness is the factor least related to successful leadership.

Along with the Five Factors, researchers continue to look for other traits associated with leadership.  For example, some researchers have made a linkage between leadership and the psychological quality known as grit.  Grit is defined as perseverance and a commitment to long term goals.  Grit has also been linked to the Big Five Factor Conscientiousness.

Humility is another trait that has emerged as important to leadership success.  Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great was one of the first books to point this out.  In Collins’ view, the best leaders are more ambitious for the organization than for themselves, they share praise and are willing to take blame, and they don’t have larger-than-life personalities.  The January 27, 2020 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek offered a short (and unscientific) quiz for determining a person’s level of humility.

Not surprisingly, the humility score for presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg Businessweek, did not appear in that article.  It’s hard to imagine someone with a great deal of humility running for president, and none of the leading candidates seem interested in demonstrating how humble they are.  This actually raises an interesting question:  Do we look for different qualities in our political leaders than in organizational leaders?  I don’t have research to back that up, but I’m guessing we do.