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.

OB and Leadership, My First Impressions

Obie Trice - Cheers album cover

Image: Shady Records, Interscope

No, not Obie, OB. As in organizational behavior. My BUS 631 course started on Monday. It’s a required course for my MS of Communications degree and also a 6-week summer course, but it’s inspired me to get my act together and start writing some more.

We’re required to create one journal entry per class (we meet semi-weekly) with the purpose of having a continual progression of commentary on our learning materials to assist us in the ultimate goal of a final paper that isn’t a rushed crock of BS at the last minute. As I discovered in my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, I’m a bit of a visionary (jackoff) and am most productive when provided with structure (having my ass whipped).

So, here goes the first of many journal entries. Hopefully you enjoy them, learn something from them, or at least find something neat in the hyperlinks.

Organizational behavior and leadership are two concepts that I am familiar with in a non-expert sense, but I have not studied either of them abstractly prior to this course. Through this class I expect to critically analyze my preconceptions of both of these fields, and to view my past experiences and observations from a more scholarly perspective. This means that I will have to redefine my ideas of what leadership and organizational behavior. For example, the qualities I look for in a leader may be based on certain bias that have no place in the objective evaluation of leadership. My concepts of organizational behavior might be limited to my individual niche within an organization, and because of this I may be incapable of understanding the behavior of the system as a whole.

The first class meeting introduced OB and leadership as areas of study that are highly subjective and often defined differently by each scholar. However, there is a wealth of data about OB and leadership, enough that trends and patterns have been observed and acceptable standards are taught and practiced. All of the students in the class were assigned to project groups on the first night, and asked to perform introductory exercises to help familiarize ourselves with our group dynamics and begin thinking in terms of OB and leadership with an experiential or real-world application right from the start. By sharing our strengths and weaknesses with each other we were able to establish group norms and roles and also put ourselves into the mindset of categorizing behaviors; something we practiced even further with our homework assignment using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

I was not surprised to find my profile described as a hybrid made up of the Introverted, Intuitive, and Thinking traits with a 50/50 split between Judging and Perceiving. As both testing systems mention, there is no single person who is 100% one way or the other, but everyone exhibits certain characteristics to varying degrees along a continuum. While both the MBTI and Keirsey tests provided cues to watch for and methods for engaging the different “types”, neither addressed the possibility that one particular “type” might not always exhibit their stereotypical traits in all situations.

Perhaps this is because the primary application of these tests is in the business management setting, but I personally find that most people display varying levels of their traits depending on the situation they are in; mostly to accommodate what they perceive to be the appropriate circumstantial function. I hope to apply some of Howard Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory among other things to OB, and to view leadership as a form of Rhetoric. It is my expectation that there will be a large amount of overlap between the theory I learn in this course and what I have experienced in the Communications field, as I imagine those coming from psychology or the social sciences will also find similarities. Though, hat I really hope is to challenge my own views and ways of thinking; to find the differences among the similar.

Just from glancing at the preface and introduction sections of each of the texts I can draw some conclusions to what new information I might find useful to my personal life and my interaction within organizations. OB, like Communications, is something that has been happening since the dawn of civilization but only recently been considered its own field of study. While this book treats OB as a convention of the business world; I think I will find that much of OB theory will be recognizable to me based on my background in communication and systems theory. Like many theories that favor study of the workings of the whole as an organism over the individual pieces by themselves, OB looks beyond just the compiled data and seeks a way to implement knowledge to create and maintain a successful organization. Defined as “a field of study that endeavors to understand, explain, predict and change human behavior that occurs in the organizational context,” OB is essentially a systems theory with an applicable goal: know the system, know how it works, know why it works, and make it work better. I find the characteristics of OB admirable and essential, and look forward to learning more about them.

Leadership, the other half of the course, should prove to be equally interesting. While I think that I have a better understanding of leadership going into the course due to its colloquial use in our culture, I think that means I will have even more to learn. I expect to challenge my preconceived notions of leadership and also strive to improve my abilities as a leader. Even though I may already be able to recognize a good leader “when I see one,” or to even do a fairly decent job as a leader myself from time to time, I want to be able to know why that is the case and what I can do to make leadership assessments more effectively.

Beyond picking up a book about leadership or OB, I think that the two major benefits to taking this course will be the expertise of the instructor and the experiential learning approach. These are things that I would not have been able to obtain, as put by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, from a “dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library,” but only through engaging in discussion and action with others who are also on their way to understanding more about themselves and their world through leadership and OB.