Situational leadership approaches paper

A Comparative Examination of Traits and Situational Leadership Frameworks


Numerous years of research have consistently linked the success of small, medium-sized to concrete leadership. A myriad of leadership approaches is available for application into organizational management contexts. Trait and skills leadership are closely related in perspective, while situational leadership framework premises on the nature of contingency. As opposed to a trait leadership criteria, situational leadership is contingency-based, with its framework surpassing the conventionalities attached to an individual’s characteristics, skills, or talents. The trait theory links an individual’s personality to specific leadership characteristics that separate them from non-leaders. Owing to the importance of leadership to organizational success, analyzing trait leadership against the situational approach is essential as it presents managers with effective leadership sufficiently backed with theory. This essay adopts a theory-based approach to compare Trait, skills, and situational leadership approaches premised on their foundations, strengths, and limitations.

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Kathleen Yosko is the current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Wheaton-based Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center, a medical center that was one of the first facilities of its kind in Northwestern regions. Yosko assumed office as the President and CEO of Marianjoy in 1998 and has elevated the company to a leading network of inpatient, subacute, and outpatient healthcare facility with a bed capacity surpassing 500. When Kathleen Yosko began working at Marianjoy Inc., the company did not initiate an onboarding process to transition her into the new job. Worried that there could be a mistake, she contacted the company’s headquarters to express her concerns, but she was told to “…do whatever a president does. “Being a seasoned organizational leader with extensive experience, Kathleen Yosko smoothly intuited her way into the corporate system managed to steer the company further by applying her concrete value-based leadership approaches.

Keith Davis defines leadership as the process of motivating and inflicting the spirit of enthusiasm into others so they can work towards achieving specific objectives. Yosko’s situation may not apply to all cases in organizational management. Companies are accustomed to promoting individuals by basing on their technical potentials and skills. These individuals may be gifted tech-savvies or outstanding marketers. However, their skills alone should not be used to judge their leadership potentials. It is for the aforementioned reasons that the contemporary theories of leadership are pegged on human behavior. A leader’s traits ad skills should merge towards the efforts to attain specific organizational goals in a prevailing situation.

Theoretical Framework and Analysis

The Trait Theoryof Leadership

The trait theory of leadership is traced back to Thomas Carlyle (1888), who, through his famous lecture “Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History,” identified specific noticeable traits that leaders possess universally.  The trait theory alludes that different individuals are born with a particular aura, or set of characters from which they stand disguised from other people in their environments. Such human heroes that were born with distinguishable traits include Martin Luther King Jr and Winston Churchill (Germain, 2008). The basis of trait theory is that the mentioned individuals premised their abilities to reshape certain aspects of their environments on personal attributes with which they were born (Grinin, 2010).

The concept of a “great man,” as created by Nicoli Machiavelli (1469-1527), has been fundamentally aligned along with the trait theory. Machiavelli’s belief in an omnipotent being that he often referred to as a “great man” has been considered as a distinctive trait that facilitated his leadership and created in him the urge to attain a high threshold (S.Alberto, 2015). Fortunately, Germain (2008) posits that the trait theory recognizes that leadership qualities may not be entirely born, but may be made in the course of interaction with their environments. Grinin (2010) articulates that the idealization of “a great man” may be pegged on their traits, but also other aspects such as the perception of social issues, their positions on controversial social and political issues, or sometimes through their ideas and actions.

In its developed form, Thomas Carlyle’s trait theory has received considerable critique from the early times of its existence.  His idealization of “a great man,” for instance, was referred to as “primitive, childish, and unscientific…” by Herbert Spencer. Spenser believed that instead, individuals such as Martin Luther King Junior and Machiavelli were products of their environments (Northouse, 2010). Another significant critique of the trait theory of leadership is staged by Stogdill (1948). Northouse (2010) documents that Stogdill expressed his skepticism regarding the consistency of the methodology with which one could separate leaders from followers, according to Carlyle’s submission. Northouse (2010) himself noted the complexities that would be involved in the trait components were used to guide leadership training and development. The complexity is such because personal attributes and skills require a considerable time and effort to change.

Trait vs. Situational Leadership approaches

The Trait Approach

The framework of the traits approach is that leadership accrues from specific attributes that one is primarily born with and which can only be present if they are imparted at birth. However, this absolute notion of the trait approach of leadership has since lost credibility as scholars have progressively established a better understanding of this leadership criteria. Northouse (2010) has, in the recent past, argued that while leaders are naturally different from followers due to specific traits that they possess, an individual does not have to have all the features embodied in Carlyle’s “great man”(Northouse, 2010). However, scholars have also agreed that leaders still need to have the desirable forms of traits, which potentially lack in the rest of “non-leaders.” A recent individual noted to have acquired significantly unique market skills, and who emerged as a great leader is the late Steve Jobs, former Apple Inc. president. Jobs was observed to possess an incredible ability to articulate his ideas passionately and to use words admirably such that people would follow his threshold of leadership.

The demanding nature of leadership, along with the relentlessness, pressure, and complex responsibilities that it attracts calls for an individual with specific rare traits to take up leadership roles. Goldberg’s (1990) “Big Five Personality Factors “have instrumentally classified these traits under openness, emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Recent research has established that emotionally stable leaders approach leadership with a significant level of self-esteem, and lack comfort with emotions. Other important aspects of leadership, such as decisiveness, also have a direct link with emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness.

Recently, Smith & Conger (2004) have documented classified leadership traits into good physiques, creativity intelligence, social characteristics, and moral traits. Under admirable physique, Smith & Conger (2004) have emphasized the relevance of being physically energetic, possessing sound health, enthusiasm, and physical aggressiveness to leaders. Smith & Conger (2004) have further asserted that having significant problem-solving potentials, proper thought, self-understanding, and adequate education have far-reaching impacts on organizational leadership. On social traits, the text outlines being inspirational, fearlessness, understanding of others, and the ability to plan mobilize, and tactfully initiate strategies as important traits that guide leadership.

An outstanding advantage of the trait leadership approach can be traced back to the trait theory. The theoretical approach of trait leadership is embodied on the assumption that individuals with leadership qualities possess specific a combination of exceptional traits that are valuable for their leadership roles (Conger, 2004). The theoretical understanding of trait leadership fits sufficiently into society’s ideology that leaders are not like nonleaders. This approach shapes the idea that leaders are born, but not made. Besides, the trait leadership methodology has also assisted organizations in benchmarking the selection of suitable leaders through a comprehensive assessment of individual traits that would be used to conclude their strengths and weaknesses, and therefore their leadership potentials.

Nonetheless, the trait leadership approach is subject to considerable critique. One major issue raised by the critics of this leadership approach is that there is no standard list of traits with which an ideal leader could be defined (Conger, 2004). As previously mentioned, progressive research has classified leadership traits into different clusters by using different definitions of attributes. As one of the critical critics of trait leadership model, Mischel argued that personal characteristics are way too dynamic such that one cannot determine an individual’s leadership by premising on observed traits alone Mischel’s argument is pegged on the fact that people are compelled to reveal diverse characteristics depending on the prevailing circumstances (Germain, 2008). The trait leadership approach skips the situation function, failing to consider the fact that different situations would call for different personality traits. This approach has also failed to draw the line between traits that mark a distinction between leaders and non-leaders, and those traits that leaders need to sustain high-quality organizational performance.

Situational Leadership Approach

The basis of the situational leadership framework is that leadership is relative to individual circumstances. The concept behind situational leadership is traced back to Paul Hersey, and Ken Blanchard whose focus during study surpassed the mere aspects of leadership, but also considered environmental issues that would prompt an unusual view of leadership roles (Khan & Nawaz, 2016). Both leadership styles and the level by which leaders address and manipulate subordinates are fundamental components of situational leadership. Situational leadership links consistently with individual behavior in response to given situations and environmental factors, and therefore their traits (Mujtaba & Sungkhawan, 2007). The success of a situational leadership approach lies deeply within the potentials of an organizational leader to reveal specific responsive characteristics and behaviors that would eventually guide their actions (or inaction) towards taking charge of the situation.

Recent scholarly developments have documented that situational leadership relies mainly on the ability of leaders to manipulate subordinate actions through delegating, coaching, supporting, and directing (Shonhiwa, 2016). It demands that leaders shift from one leadership style to another as they seek to meet the needs of each situation in their lines of leadership. Researchers have specifically applauded the fact that situational leadership offers leaders the chance to blend in a mix of diverse developmental approaches that mirror the actual situations within the workplace setting (S.Alberto, 2015). A section of scholars has also shed light on the fact that situational strategies are fitted within concepts that are easy to understand and apply in leadership. However, a significant source of critique against the situational approach is that its preference lies subject to an individual’s age, leadership experience, and the nature of the workplace situation. Also, its framework is exclusively suitable to one-to-one interaction.

Discussions and Conclusions

This research has attempted to navigate through two key leadership approaches; trait leadership approaches and situational leadership approaches. The fundamentals of this research has been pegged within the interaction between the aforementioned approaches with the trait leadership theory. Trait theory has particularly proved useful to this context as it enables an in-depth understanding of the link between individual personalities and identities not only with their leadership capabilities, but also with responses to a myriad of workplace situations. This theory enables managers to identify with specific strengths and weaknesses that inform their choice of leadership approaches to given situations. Trait leadership has also achieved considerable credibility in explaining the effectiveness of other leadership models such as transformational leadership and authentic leadership model.

As outlined from the research presented, situational models of leadership are superior to trait models and should be widely accepted as they fit into different organizational contexts. However, it must not be assumed that situational leadership is the best for every corporate as transactional, transformational, and path-goal models have achieved stronger scholarly validity. However, the choice of a suitable leadership model should not be entirely premised on trait record, but also on the prevailing circumstances surrounding an organization. Between the two styles, whichever one chooses, it is recommendable that organizations should not overlook Thomas Carlyle’s idealization of “a great man” for its leadership. As outlined in Kathleen Yosko and her encounter at Marianjoy Inc., leaders need certain ideal traits, whether naturally exiting or acquired through training, to inform their decisions through corporate-specific situations.


Conger, J. A. (2004). Developing leadership capability: What’s inside the black box? Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(3), 33-39.

Germain, M.-L. (2008). Traits and Skills Theories as the Nexus between Leadership and Expertise: Reality or Fallacy? Panama City, Panama: Resource Development International Research Conference in the Americas.

Grinin, L. (2010). The role of an individual in history: A reconsideration. Social Evolution & History, 9(2), 95–136.

Kaifi, B. A., Noor, A. O., Nl, N., & Aslami, W. (2014). The Importance of Situational Leadership in the Workforce: A Study Based on Gender, Place of Birth, and Generational Affiliation. Journal of Contemporary Management, 25(3), 29-38.

Khan, I. U., & Nawaz, A. (2016). A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF LEADERSHIP THEORIES: A REVIEW. Gomal University Journal of Research, Special Issue (IV), 21-32.

Mujtaba, B., & Sungkhawan, J. (2007). Situational leadership and diversity management coaching skills. Journal of Diversity Management, 4(1), 2-11.

Northouse, P. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications .

S.Alberto. (2015). An integrated leadership theory. Journal of Perspectives in Organizational Behavior, Management, & Leadership, 1(1), 5-9.

Shonhiwa, C. (2016). An Examination of the Situational Leadership Approach: Strengths and Weaknesses. Cross-Currents: An International Peer-Reviewed Journal on Humanities & Social Sciences, 2(2), 35-40.


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