Since the debate about if leaders are both or made is still alive and active in academic circles and practitioner circles, trait theories were a frequent topic of conversation while I was obtaining my Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership.
Trait theories predominantly focus on the leader’s specific qualities, who they were, and how their traits differentiated them from other people. Trait theories were the focal point of leadership theory up through the 1940s.
One of the two main categories of trait theories is the Biological-Genetic theory, which centers on attributes of a leader being certain characteristics that are innate to their genetic make-up. This means that a leader could be recognized by physical traits, things like their height or other prominent physical features, or their personality traits, like being an extrovert or having self-confidence, or their mental abilities, such as intelligence. As author and professor, Peter Northouse states, this also means that people believed that leadership was an “elitist enterprise” and was reserved for those who had the specific biological make-up deemed as worthy of leadership, of being a leader.
While reading the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, I noticed something quite interesting concerning trait theory. Scripture tells us that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord. His successes were many and his influence was great. In 1 Samuel 15 we learn through a word that comes to Samuel from the Lord, that Saul, the reigning king over Israel, has been rejected by the Lord from being king. Samuel receives instruction from the Lord that he is to go to a man in Bethlehem named Jesse and that one of Jesse’s sons has been chosen by the Lord to replace Saul as king over Israel. So, Samuel goes to Jesse’s home to anoint the son who is to be king. 1 Samuel 16:6 (MSG) says, “When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Here he is! God’s Anointed!”” But, as we learn in the next verse, Samuel is wrong and God tells Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature…God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks at the heart.” As we move on in the story, we learn that none of Jesse’s seven oldest sons are whom God has anointed to replace Saul as king over Israel, but it is in fact David, Jesse’s youngest son who is still a pre-teen and tending to his father’s sheep.
God provides Samuel and us with the greatest lesson about trait theory: It doesn’t matter how beautiful you are, how tall you are, how old you are, how experienced you are, how outgoing you are, or how smart you are; if God is calling you to something and has anointed you for it, all that matters is your character, your heart.