icon Leadership Theories: The Trait Theory vs. The Process Theory Skip to content
Leadership Theories: The Trait Theory vs. The Process Theory - HRDQ

Leadership Theories: The Trait Theory vs. The Process Theory

When you dive into the world of leadership theories, you'll find that there are countless ideas about how and why certain people become leaders. One of the earliest investigations into the nature of successful leaders is known as the trait theory of leadership, which is intimately connected to the "great man" theory of leadership.

While this idea proposed that people are born with leadership traits and that these traits produce certain behavioral patterns, other theories question whether there's any validity to the notion that "leaders are born, not made."

While the trait theory of leadership is still one of the dominant ideas on the table, several competing theories have risen to the challenge of explaining the process that creates effective leaders.

One of these is known as the process theory. Let's take a look at what you need to know about both the trait theory and the process theory of leadership.

What Is the Trait Theory of Leadership?

The trait theory of leadership can be traced back to the mid-1800s with Thomas Carlyle's "great man" theory. This became a popular concept during the 19th century and centered around the idea that history is shaped by extraordinary leaders who were born with the traits that led them to greatness. Much of the earliest research into leadership took this angle, meaning it focused primarily on inheritable traits rather than those that can be developed.

The traits associated with leadership in this theory might be physical, personality-based, intelligence-based, or any other characteristic or quality that a person can possess.

Therefore, the trait theory of leadership focuses on identifying the personality characteristics and traits associated with successful leadership.

Learn more about your personal leadership style: What's My Leadership Style

Effective Team Leader

Some of the traits that researchers have found are most commonly associated with effective leaders include:

  • People skills
  • Intelligence
  • Action-oriented judgment
  • Emotional stability
  • Assertiveness
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Capacity to motivate people
  • Trustworthiness
  • Perseverance
  • Empathy
  • Task competence
  • Self-confidence
  • Goal-driven
  • Eagerness to take on responsibility
  • Decisiveness
  • Resolution and courage

While these ideas still significantly impact our cultural concept of leadership, the theory has become much more controversial in recent times.

While early leadership studies assumed that leaders were born with specific traits that distinguished them from followers, research has found evidence that this isn't the case.

As you might imagine, there are certain traits associated with leadership. These include excellent communication skills, self-confidence, and extroversion. However, research has found that people with these traits don't necessarily become leaders.

Some people have explained that situational variables might impact whether someone emerges as a leader. The idea here is that some people might not fully utilize their inborn leadership skills unless an opportunity arises, such as during a political crisis, a war, or when no one else is stepping up to fill an important leadership role.

What Is the Process Theory of Leadership?

While the trait theory focuses on the leader's inborn qualities, the process theory of leadership conveys the idea that leadership is a process that has to do with the relationship between the leader and their followers.

Related to the idea of transformational leadership that James MacGregor Burns proposed, process leadership involves a leader putting their personal interests aside for the interest of the larger group. The goal is to empower and motivate everyone involved, and that is where the leaders put their focus.

When you work to be a process leader, you take on the responsibility of offering support to others and building relationships with them. Rather than being born with the qualities of a leader, this theory states that this process allows you to become a leader over time. By creating these positive relationships, you build an environment where you and your followers can succeed.

Leader Supporting Team Member

To fully understand what is meant by the process theory, it can be helpful to understand the broader application of the term.

Process theories, in general, refer to a system of ideas that help illustrate how an entity develops and changes. These theories focus on how something happens rather than why something happens.

When applied to leadership, the focus is on the interaction between the leader and the follower rather than simply on the leader alone. It takes into account the reality that exchange occurs between leaders and followers, which is a vital part of the process of great leadership.

Is a great leader really great if they haven't found any followers or supporters? It would be hard to argue the case. However, in the trait theory of leadership, that is precisely what is being proposed.

If you're continuously working towards improving your leadership skills, you've likely focused a lot on interpersonal communication. However, an equally important aspect of becoming the best leader you can be is the skill of intrapersonal communication. To learn more about what this means and how to build intrapersonal communication skills, check out our ultimate guide to intrapersonal communication.

The Trait Theory Vs. The Process Theory of Leadership: What's the Difference?

In some regards, the trait theory and the process theory of leadership stand on opposite ends of the leadership theory spectrum.

Effectively Leading a Team

You could even say this is an extension of the classic nature vs. nurture debate.

  • From the standpoint of trait theory, nature is responsible for creating leaders. People who have the necessary skills to be effective leaders are born with specific characteristics and traits that allow them to be a centralizing force among a group of followers.
  • From the process theory point of view, leadership has much more to do with nurture. Rather than focusing on the idea that people might be inherently more inclined to take to leadership roles, the idea is that being a great leader has to do with learning and developing relational skills.

The process theory makes it possible for anyone to be a leader in different situations.

It's not just that some people have the necessary skills and abilities to lead others, but instead that individuals can observe and learn the skills needed to lead and can organically emerge as leaders through relationships.

Ultimately, the process theory is what is known as a relationship or transformational theory of leadership. The focus is on the connection that is formed between followers and leaders rather than on the inborn traits of the leader. The idea is that transformational leaders can inspire and motivate people by focusing on the performance of group members and helping them see the higher good of the task at hand.

A vital skill that all leaders should possess: Critical Thinking Fundamentals

The Trait Theory Controversy

Though the trait theory has been a popular leadership concept for a long time, it has become more controversial in recent years.

The reason behind the controversy is that research has found that there aren't that many traits that help draw a clear line in the sand between leaders and followers.

This type of research shows that the trait theory of leadership might be flawed. Additionally, research has found that people that do seem to have leadership traits naturally don't always end up actually becoming leaders.

Leader Lacking Necessary Skills

Another controversial aspect of the theory is the implication that certain people don't have what it takes to become leaders.

When the trait theory first emerged as an idea, many world leaders were used as examples of the fact that leaders are born and not made. These include Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Queen Elizabeth I, to name just a few. These people were larger-than-life figures who could lead (and sometimes impressively expand) nations.

What Are Some Other Major Leadership Theories?

If you're considering the difference between trait theory and process theory, it's worth understanding the larger playing field when it comes to leadership theory categories. Let's look at some of the other major types of theories you'll want to know about.

Contingency Theories

Contingency theories posit that there isn't one leadership style that is best in all situations. Instead, different leadership styles can be more or less effective in different environments.

Leader Working With Team

Within this line of thinking, good leaders can take stock of a situation and assess the needs of their followers before adjusting their behaviors to fit the circumstance.

An impactful skill necessary in any workplace situation: Emotional Intelligence Skills Assessment

Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories also stand on the opposite side of the spectrum of trait theories. The idea here is that leaders are made, not born. Rather than assuming that great leaders are born with all the traits they will need to lead effectively, behavioral theories focus on the idea that the necessary skills can be learned.

Learning Necessary Leadership Skills

Behavioral theories also focus more on the action of leaders rather than the internal states and mental qualities of leaders. Through the lens of this theory, individuals can be taught and learn how to be great leaders through observation.

Management Theories

Management theories of leadership focus on organization, supervision, and group performance. Also known as transactional theories, the idea here is that leaders should reward their followers when they succeed and punish them when they fail. This theory is commonly used in the world of business.

Leader Rewarding Team Member

This type of leadership style can be very effective. Employees typically respond well to positive reinforcement and find it a source of motivation in the workplace. However, you'll find that this theory also receives its fair share of criticism because of the way it makes the relationship so transactional.

Additionally, too harsh consequences for goals not met or other failures can lead to reduced morale. Some people also argue that leading using one of the management theories is simplistic and ultimately not the best strategy for most organizations.

Learn more about how to cultivate an effective leadership style: 

Situational Theories

Leader Analyzing a Situation

The idea behind situational theories is that leaders can look at many situational variables and choose the best course of action. According to this theory, certain types of decision-making might demand different leadership styles.

Power Theories

Power theories of leadership focus on how leaders use influence and power to get things done. One of the commonly known power theories of leadership is the Five Forms of Power by French and Raven, which looks at personal and positional power.

This type of leadership is fascinating because, on the one hand, it can allow things to get done quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, it's a great recipe for creating resentment and other issues among employees or followers.

Power Leadership

While this leadership theory in application might seem like the best way to accomplish a goal, it can leave employees feeling dominated and wreak havoc on their morale. Rather than inspiring and encouraging workers, power leadership styles tend to leave them demoralized with little motivation to be engaged.

Participative Theories

These leadership theories propose that the most effective leaders incorporate the input of others. Participative leaders encourage contributions and participation from group members and help their followers feel committed and relevant to the decision-making process.

Participative Leadership

Are you interested in learning more about different leadership styles? The six leadership styles proposed by Daniel Goleman have had a significant impact on the world of leadership theory. You can learn more about one of these styles, Pacesetting Leadership, in this article.

Leaders Are Made, Not Born

Are you looking to improve your leadership skills? If so, it's essential to move beyond the archaic idea that you can't learn new skills to become an effective leader. Not only can you continuously improve the necessary skills to be a successful leader, but you can also identify your preferred leadership style and work on perfecting additional leadership styles. This way, you can always be prepared to lead your team no matter what the situation calls for.

Strong Team Leader

The first step in improving your leadership skills is gaining valuable insight into the strengths and weak points you already have. If you're looking for a tool to help identify your leadership style and help you learn about the best ways to lead in different situations, check out What's My Leadership Style today.

Do you have any questions about the trait theory, the process theory, or anything else we mentioned today? If so, please feel free to drop a comment below and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you however we can!

Related Products of Interest

Previous article What Are The Most Common Frustrations at Work in 2023?

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields

About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.