Leadership Development: Are Traits or Behaviors More Important?

Topic(s): leadership, personality
Publication: Personnel Psychology (2011)
Article: Trait and behavioral theories of leadership: An integration and meta-analytic test of their relative validity.
Authors: D.S. DeRue, J.D. Nahrgang, N. Wellman, S.E. Humphrey
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

You want to hire the best potential leaders for your organization, but how do you know whom to choose? Do you pick the most extraverted applicant? The most intelligent? The most charismatic? The literature on what makes for an effective leader is fragmented, so this article (DeRue, Nahrgang, Wellman, Humphrey, 2014) is an attempt to integrate the literature on trait and behavioral theories of leadership and determine their relative importance.

Trait theories argue that leaders with certain traits will be more effective. Traits can be categorized by demographic traits (e.g., gender), traits related to task competence (e.g., intelligence, conscientiousness), and interpersonal attributes (e.g., extraversion, agreeableness). Behavioral theories posit that certain leader behaviors are related to effectiveness. These theories can be organized into four categories: task-oriented behaviors (e.g., initiating structure, contingent reward), relational-oriented behaviors (e.g., consideration, empowerment), change-oriented behaviors (e.g., transformational, charismatic), and passive leadership (e.g., laissez-faire).

Many leadership studies vary regarding their criteria for leadership effectiveness, so this article considered four different types of criteria: individual leader effectiveness, group performance, follower satisfaction with the leader, and follower job satisfaction.


The authors found that when only considering how leader traits relate to effectiveness, traits better predicted the satisfaction variables better than the task performance variables, and that conscientiousness was the best overall predictor. Extraversion and agreeableness were also good predictors. When looking only at leader behaviors, the authors found that transformational leadership was the best predictor of effectiveness. Behaviors were more predictive than traits. Trait and behaviors were also related; task competence traits predicted task-oriented behaviors, which in turn predicted performance criteria. Interpersonal attributes predicted relational-oriented behaviors, which predicted the affective effectiveness criteria (i.e., follower satisfaction with the leader and follower job satisfaction).


So what does this all mean? If you are planning to hire potential leaders, your best bet is to hire people who are conscientious, extraverted, and agreeable. However, those traits do not directly predict effectiveness; their impact is through their influence on behaviors. The finding that behaviors are better predictors than traits has relevance to leadership development, as behaviors, unlike traits, can be learned. Different leadership behaviors predict different leadership effectiveness criteria, so leadership development programs should attempt to develop task-oriented behaviors, relational-oriented behaviors, and change-oriented behaviors. 


DeRue, D. S., Nahrgang, J. D., Wellman, N., & Humphrey, S. E. (2011). Trait and behavioral theories of leadership: An integration and meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Personnel Psychology, 64, 7-52

Image credit: istockphoto/fizkes