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Leader Traits, Motives and Characteristics

Of the many leadership studies that have been undertaken, the trait approach to leadership theory is one study that has withstood the test of time. It has been proven that certain personal characteristics and skills contribute to leadership effectiveness in many situations. The following essay will examine the leadership trait theory and will cross-examine it with the findings of an interview with a real life leader. The interviewee was Mino Intini, an Executive Director for the Department for Community Development. He has had many years experience within top-level management that has helped him develop an industry-based understanding of leadership. Mino was presented with the general traits and characteristics theory and asked a series of questions relating to his experience and the theory. The findings will be compared and contrasted with the trait leadership theory to gain a better understanding of good leadership.


Dubrin and Dalglish (2003, p.30) describe certain personality traits that effective leaders employ. These include self-confidence, trustworthiness, high tolerance for frustration, warmth, sense of humour, extroversion, assertiveness, emotional stability and enthusiasm. This list is exhaustive and a single leader is doubtful and certainly not expected to hold all these traits. They are, however an excellent base of study, as good leaders should at least acknowledge the benefits of each personality trait. For example, a sense of humour will promote open relationships with followers and enthusiasm will assist in motivating staff.


As found in many leadership style theories (see leadership styles link), the situation will obviously have a great impact on the mix of personality traits that the leader holds or at least expresses. For example, a politician may emphasis their assertiveness through their decision-making and their high tolerance for frustration during turbulent times but may not show a sense of humour. Because the politician doesn’t display all the personality traits included in the trait theory certainly does not mean that he/she is not a good leader. It simply means that a good leader uses situational leadership to adapt their personal traits to the respective leader-follower environment.


Mino had an interesting view in that he believed that “certain personality traits lend themselves to certain jobs”. Mino also added “I know people that are remarkable leaders in their current positions because of their personality, whilst they have been ineffective leaders in other positions”. This means that whilst a leader may be able to adapt their behaviour to a situation, there are underlying personality traits that cannot be hidden. These personalities can be vastly different from behaviours and can be extremely effective or disastrous depending on the situation, as Mino pointed out.  Mino said “Leaders often adjust their behaviour for the people under them, but if they are there for the long term, people will figure them out”. This means that behavioural traits can be superficial and when studying good leadership one should understand that honesty and trust may be hindered by inconsistent behaviours. One should therefore be careful when incorporating new behaviours into their leadership style, especially when the behavioural traits are not in-line with their underlying personality characteristics.


Dubrin and Dalglish (2003) describe task-related personality traits of good leaders, including courage, passion, locus of control, flexibility and adaptability and emotional intelligence. These traits are specifically related to the leader’s view of their task and their drive to accomplish these tasks. When asked about these traits, Mino immediately noted the importance of emotional intelligence in any leadership situation. “Without emotional intelligence you will not to be able to lead anybody anywhere”. He believed “empathy for people’s situation is paramount for maintaining trust.  I find that more often than not people just want to be heard and understood. You must have an awareness of peoples’ feelings as it enables you to pitch your conversation at a level that has impact”. Therefore, one could assume that emotional intelligence is one personality trait that has universal appeal regardless of the position/situation. It assists all communication and can be used as a point of leverage (even persuasion) during conversation with followers. When you understand your followers, they are more likely to understand you.


There are many personality and behavioural traits studies that have been documented over time, although, in the interest of studying good leadership one should certainly look at the motives behind every great leader. Dubrin and Dalglish (2003, p.40) describe four motives that can all be considered as task-related. They include Tenacity, power motive, strong work ethic, Drive and achievement.


The power motive denotes that effective leaders have a strong need to control resources and a determination to exert their power (Dubrin & Dalglish, 2003, p. 41). Kim John Il may have a strong power motive as he rules north Korea with an iron fist and has a need to control its (his) people and its (his) resources. Mino said “I obtain a sense of fulfilment in being able to influence people…”. Influence is possibly the simplest form of power that leaders have over their followers.


The drive and achievement motive is rather obvious and the study of good leadership should certainly focus on this motive as it promotes an effective working environment. Mino noted this as his greatest motivation by saying “I am motivated by achievement. In my experience the most effective leaders are motivated by a need to accomplish and develop their ego. There is nothing more a leader enjoys than being told they are a good leader. This is the ultimate reward”. It is then possible to realise the close link between accomplishment and recognition. Whilst a leader may be motivated to achieve a set task, they may well be doing so because of the expected (Vroom’s expectancy theory) acknowledgment. Leaders may strive for this recognition as it  (acknowledgment) often flows down the hierarchy (from manager to subordinate) and is less evident flowing up the hierarchy.  In respect to Dubrin and Dalglish’s (2003, p.42) leadership motive theory, another new motive known as acknowledgement may therefore, be just as relevant as the drive and achievement motive.


Dubrin and Dalglish (2003, p.42) describe the motive of a strong work ethic that effective leaders have. This is another motive that students of good leadership should follow as it promotes a dedicated, hard working environment. Mino also found this motive appropriate to study as he said “some leaders lead predominantly by example. They have a strong work ethic and rely on people observing their work practices”. Commitment and dedication to one’s work can rub off onto followers and would certainly create respect between the follower and their leader. No body likes a lazy boss.


Tenacity is the final motive that Dubrin and Dalglish (2003, p.44) analyse. Being tenacious means striving to accomplish, regardless of obstacles. Successful leaders are often tenacious in their work practices. One must now draw the line between successful leaders and good leaders. A successful leader may be extremely tenacious by squashing all those that get in their way and employing tactics that do not promote a healthy working environment. Whilst a successful leader may be extremely tenacious and create a large profit, it may not be as sustainable as a good leader that is able to use tenacity to a degree that allows healthy leader-follower relationships to thrive. When studying good leadership one should therefore understand the importance of tenacity and its benefits as well as its associated limits and dangers.  


The study of leadership traits, characteristics and motives is vital to the student of good leadership. One must acknowledge that there are many personal traits that lend themselves to effective leadership. One must also understand that these traits vary in importance according to the position or situation they are practised in. One should pay close attention to the difference between effective leadership behavioural traits and personality traits as they each impact differently on the followers’ perception of the leader. One should also take a subjective view of leadership motive theory in order to personally distinguish between their own motives and acknowledge the situation that would best suit them.



Dubrin, A, Daglish, C & Miller, P. (2006). Leadership. (2nd ed). Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia