Trait Theory of Leadership in Criminology: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:03 The Trait Theory of…
  • 0:56 What Makes a Good Leader?
  • 1:55 Criticisms of the Trait Theory
  • 3:00 Recent Developments in…
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

This lesson defines the trait theory of leadership and its role in criminology. It also provides criticisms of the theory and discusses recent contributions that address some of the problems within the theory.

The Trait Theory of Leadership

Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

- John F. Kennedy

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

You may recall hearing the quotes above. Both statements were spoken by well-known figures in United States history. These individuals possessed innate characteristics that, according to the trait theory of leadership, made them sound leaders. The trait theory of leadership is a model based on the notion that people are born with characteristics and personalities that make them either leaders or non-leaders.

The theory emerged during World War II, when people began to question how someone like Hitler could rise to power. Many answered that despite the infamous character's actions, he displayed certain traits associated with leadership. But it wasn't until the early 1970s when the trait theory of leadership really took form.

Social researchers in the early 1970s began asking people, 'What makes a good leader?' and documenting the responses. The list was almost infinite. You could probably imagine many of the traits that comprised this list: intelligence, confidence, fairness, charisma, honesty, persuasiveness, aggressiveness and being well-spoken, to name a few. Interestingly enough, not every person considered a 'great leader' possesses every single one of these traits. After all, would you consider Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa aggressive people? Probably not. But few would deny their abilities as leaders.

In criminology, the trait theory is discussed with regard to leadership positions within the criminal justice system, most commonly in policing. After all, law enforcement agencies are most efficient under great leadership. For instance, a police chief may need a respectable personality, an ability to institute real change and selfless service to his or her employees.

Criticisms of the Trait Theory

The trait theory of leadership has received much criticism since its inception. One major complaint is that simply describing a person isn't an effective way to define leadership, nor is making a list of traits from public opinion a sound method of social research. The field of social research has far more proven methods for testing a theory of any social phenomena or behavior. Providing a list of characteristics of a person in a specific role might be part of the research process. However, it would not be sufficient as the basis of a theory or the entire test of a theory.

The list of characteristics becomes so long that it loses meaning since there is no clear definition of leadership. The nearly infinite length of the list is why no great leader actually embodies all of these traits. The Dalai Lama and Reverend Jesse Jackson have little in common in terms of leadership traits, and yet few people would argue their abilities to lead and motivate people. Additionally, this theory does not account for situational context; a leader could be great in certain situations or circumstances, but not in all.

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