Behavioral Theories of Leadership vs. Trait Theory

What's the Difference?

Behavioral theories of leadership and trait theory are two different approaches to understanding leadership. Behavioral theories focus on the actions and behaviors of leaders, suggesting that effective leadership can be learned and developed through specific behaviors. These theories emphasize the importance of leaders' actions in influencing and motivating their followers. On the other hand, trait theory focuses on the inherent qualities and characteristics of leaders. It suggests that certain traits, such as intelligence, confidence, and charisma, are innate and determine one's leadership potential. While behavioral theories focus on what leaders do, trait theory focuses on who leaders are. Both theories have their merits, but behavioral theories offer a more practical and actionable approach to leadership development, as they suggest that anyone can become an effective leader by adopting specific behaviors and practices.


AttributeBehavioral Theories of LeadershipTrait Theory
FocusEmphasizes the actions and behaviors of leadersEmphasizes the personal traits and characteristics of leaders
ApproachLeadership is seen as a set of learned behaviorsLeadership is seen as inherent traits possessed by individuals
Key ConceptsTask-oriented vs. people-oriented leadership, autocratic vs. democratic leadershipPersonality traits, intelligence, confidence, charisma
Focus on FollowersEmphasizes the impact of leader behavior on followersLess emphasis on the impact of leader traits on followers
FlexibilityLeaders can adapt their behaviors based on the situationLeaders' traits are relatively stable and less adaptable
MeasurementBehavioral observations, surveys, and feedbackPersonality assessments, self-report questionnaires

Further Detail


Leadership is a complex and multifaceted concept that has been studied extensively over the years. Various theories have emerged to explain the different aspects of leadership, including the Behavioral Theories of Leadership and Trait Theory. While both theories aim to understand and explain effective leadership, they approach the topic from different angles. This article will compare and contrast the attributes of these two theories, highlighting their key differences and similarities.

Behavioral Theories of Leadership

The Behavioral Theories of Leadership focus on the actions and behaviors of leaders rather than their inherent traits or characteristics. These theories suggest that effective leadership can be learned and developed through observation, practice, and experience. One prominent behavioral theory is the Ohio State Studies, which identified two key dimensions of leadership behavior: initiating structure and consideration.

Initiating structure refers to the extent to which a leader defines and organizes the roles of their subordinates, establishes clear goals, and sets expectations. Leaders who exhibit high initiating structure tend to be task-oriented and emphasize efficiency and productivity. On the other hand, consideration refers to the extent to which a leader shows concern for the well-being, needs, and feelings of their subordinates. Leaders who exhibit high consideration tend to be relationship-oriented and prioritize building positive relationships and fostering a supportive work environment.

Another influential behavioral theory is the Managerial Grid Model developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton. This model proposes that leadership behavior can be plotted on a grid with two axes: concern for people and concern for production. The grid identifies five different leadership styles, ranging from a low concern for both people and production (impoverished management) to a high concern for both (team management). The Managerial Grid Model emphasizes the importance of balancing task-oriented and people-oriented behaviors for effective leadership.

Trait Theory

Trait Theory, on the other hand, focuses on the inherent traits and characteristics of individuals that make them effective leaders. This theory suggests that certain personality traits and qualities are associated with effective leadership. Trait theorists believe that individuals are born with these traits, and they are relatively stable over time.

One of the earliest trait theories of leadership was proposed by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. Carlyle argued that great leaders possess certain heroic qualities, such as intelligence, self-confidence, determination, and charisma. These traits, according to Carlyle, are what set leaders apart from followers and enable them to inspire and influence others.

Another influential trait theory is the Big Five Personality Model, which identifies five broad dimensions of personality: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. Research has shown that certain traits within these dimensions, such as extraversion and conscientiousness, are positively correlated with leadership effectiveness. However, it is important to note that trait theory has faced criticism for oversimplifying the complex nature of leadership and neglecting situational factors.

Comparing Attributes

While the Behavioral Theories of Leadership and Trait Theory approach leadership from different perspectives, they share some common attributes. Both theories recognize the importance of leadership in achieving organizational goals and influencing others. They also acknowledge that effective leadership involves a combination of behaviors or traits rather than a single approach.

However, the key difference lies in their focus. Behavioral theories emphasize the actions and behaviors of leaders, suggesting that leadership can be learned and developed through practice and experience. In contrast, trait theory focuses on the inherent traits and qualities of individuals, suggesting that effective leaders possess certain personality traits that set them apart from others.

Another difference is the level of control attributed to leaders. Behavioral theories suggest that leaders have a significant influence on their followers' behavior and performance through their actions and behaviors. They argue that leaders can shape and mold their subordinates' behavior by providing clear expectations, guidance, and support. In contrast, trait theory suggests that leaders' traits are relatively stable and less subject to change. According to this theory, individuals are either born with the necessary traits or not, limiting the control leaders have over their own leadership effectiveness.


In conclusion, the Behavioral Theories of Leadership and Trait Theory offer different perspectives on effective leadership. While behavioral theories focus on the actions and behaviors of leaders, trait theory emphasizes the inherent traits and qualities that make individuals effective leaders. Both theories have contributed valuable insights into the understanding of leadership, but they approach the topic from different angles. It is important to recognize that effective leadership is a complex interplay of behaviors, traits, and situational factors. By studying and understanding these theories, individuals can develop their leadership skills and contribute to the success of their organizations.

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