Leadership Traits and Skills

Robert Rodriquez - Rebel Without a Crew

Rebel Without a Crew – Plume, 1996

One of my favorite directors, Robert Rodriguez, has the philosophy that there are two essential things needed for making movies. One is creativity, the other is technical skill. He says that creativity is a trait, something you’re born with. Those people are lucky. Technical ability is learned, it is a skill that can be developed and perfected. If a creative person takes the time to learn the technical skills they become unstoppable.


I agree with Rodriguez, and I believe that his philosophy applies to more than just the world of cinema.



Chapters two and three of Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory and Practice study leadership from a leader-centered perspective. Chapter 2 focuses on traits, while Chapter 3 takes a skills approach (Northouse, 2010). While I have yet to learn any additional systems for studying leadership, I think it is safe to say that no one perspective can encompass everything it takes to be a leader. In the case of traits and skills, it is a careful balance of the two together.

Traits are considered innate characteristics. Leaders are born with these features as part of their personality. These inherent qualities are cannot be taught, they are simply something you either have or you don’t. The major leadership traits include: Intelligence, Self-Confidence, Determination, Integrity, and Sociability (Northouse, 2010, p. 19). In addition to these major traits there are five personality factors—Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness—that account for another significant part of a leader’s overall characteristics (Goldberg, 1990; McCrae & Costa, 1987). A leader may exhibit any number of these traits in varying levels, but the most important are extraversion, followed by conscientiousness, openness and low-neuroticism. Related to these behavioral/psychological categorizations is the concept of Emotional Intelligence. As intelligence is a trait in itself, the application of a set of personal and social competencies to intelligence results in emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995, 1998). While having leadership traits is important to being a successful leader, without learned skills or application the mere possession of traits will not get you very far.

The skills approach of Chapter 3 takes into consideration the fact that while some people are born with leadership characteristics and others are not, anyone can develop leadership skills. While those with traits may have some advantage, a highly skilled person can be as valuable, if not more.

Leadership skills are categorized in three ways: technical, human and conceptual (Northouse, 2010, p. 39). Technical skill is knowledge of the fundamentals of a product or process of an organization; the hands-on stuff. Human skill is people skill; the ability to understand and be sensitive to the needs and motivations of others in decision making (Northouse, 2010, p. 41). Conceptual skill involves ideas and concepts; the ability to deal with the abstract or hypothetical and take into consideration the big picture (Northouse, 2010, p. 42). Varying degrees of proficiency in these categories is important depending on the level of leadership one is involved in.

The skills model also includes a number of individual attributes and competencies and the leadership outcomes they affect. Attributes and competencies can be similar to traits, or innate abilities of a leader. Or, they can be learned through experience and developed through practice.

I view both skills and traits as things that become most visible during leadership situations. Many, if not all people, possess some amount of the traits and skills described in these two chapters. It is how they choose to express their abilities that makes them an effective leader, and it is their desire or motivation to improve themselves that maintains that effectiveness. Without a situation to discover one’s abilities, or the opportunities to gain experience or education about one’s leadership skills or traits, a person might never realize their potential to become a leader. Northouse shares these criticisms and explains that situations were not always taken into account and also realizes that many of the traits described are subjective, each person will give importance to the different ones.

The leadership skills and traits I tend to value are relatively vague, because much of what I look for in leadership is based on the environment in which an organization is operating. For me, the ability to lead requires knowledge of one’s followers, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of oneself. These broad generalizations are a safe way to say that I have no preconceptions of a good leader, only good situations. Even something that appears to be a bad or challenging situation, with effective leadership, can become a good situation. This is because not everything boils down to one single event, person or node in a complex system.

I tend to return to examples from my experiences working on movies for a lot of things, so it is fitting that I do so now. A few years ago I was appointed to the position of Craft Services on a film production. The film was a short, had a student crew and a low budget. Whether or not my job appointment was intentional or accidental, I made the most of it and quickly found myself in a leadership position. Overall, the production of the film was a success, but not just because my ability to procure food and amenities for the crew. My leadership abilities were a direct reflection of the environment in which I was operating. There were many times where a challenge or situation came up that I had to rely on past experience and learned skills, but there were also times where a new skill was learned. My problem solving skills and intelligence allowed me to adapt quickly, but these traits are not solutions themselves. I cannot say “Oh, I have problem solving skills,” or “I adapt quickly” and expect these abilities to function automatically. They come from repeat use and and self-awareness of how I process information. Abstract traits and skills are only as useful as you make them, and only through new experience are you able to develop them further.

One other important part of knowing oneself is personal reflection. Nobody becomes a great leader by endless action and repetition. You may develop powerful reflexes and instinct, but without taking the time to sit back and think about why you have these abilities you will never fully understand your role as a leader. As with all things, there is an endless amount of possibilities for improvement and understanding. This oversimplification of leadership into a few “important” categories and anecdotal examples cannot do justice to the effectiveness of pure experience, but hopefully it at least provides one more perspective.