Trait Perspectives of Sport Leadership

An enduring question within the field of sport and performance psychology concerns the origins of effective leadership (as displayed by both coaches and athletes) and, in particular, whether displays of leadership can be attributed to the emergence of any underlying set of personality traits. In the early20th century, much research interest, especially within the field of organizational psychology, focused on the role of personality as a predictor of leadership. Following World War II, this interest receded considerably, largely in response to a prominent review paper by Ralph Stogdill. In this, he concluded that the development of leadership does not occur as a result of a set of personality traits but rather through the complex interactions that exist between leaders and followers, as well as the varied situations in which leaders find themselves. In short, he emphasized that situational factors are more salient than personality traits in determining leadership effectiveness and that although people might emerge as leaders in one context they may not in another.
From the 1960s through the 1980s (which coincided with the pronounced development of sport psychology as a recognizable field of study), a number of alternative paradigms to the trait leadership perspective gained prominence. These reflected a growing recognition of the role that social, situational, and self-regulatory processes play in the development of leadership. Indeed, during this time period, and as a reflection of research especially within the field of organizational psychology, interest in the study of personality traits in relation to leadership in sport began to wane. To a large extent, the diminished interest in trait approaches to leadership within sport can be traced to the highly variable and inconclusive nature of the research findings. For example, although some studies reported evidence that some personality traits were associated with improved ratings of leadership ability among athletes, very different patterns of findings were observed across many other replication investigations. It has been suggested that the failure to identify a clear pattern of associations between personality traits and leadership behaviors in sport was due, to a large extent, to the widespread use of conceptually limited and atheoretical approaches alongside deficiencies in measurement,which failed to explain how the extensive number of traits being measured might be related to the criterion variables of interest. As a prominent example of this, an instrument called the Athletic Motivation Inventory (AMI) was developed in the late 1960s, which was purported (by the authors of that instrument) to assess a range of personality traits associated with, and predictive of, athlete success. Specifically, the AMI was designed to assess traits that included “drive,” “leadership,” “responsibility,” and “mental toughness.” Following publication of the AMI, several scholars raised concerns with the use of this instrument (which was widely marketed for use in professional sports), highlighting that no published evidence for the reliability or predictive validity of measures derived from this instrument was ever provided.
Balanced against this backdrop has been a resurgence of interest in the study of personality traits and leadership in recent years, especially within the field of organizational psychology (interestingly, this interest has not been matched within SP). The impetus for this renewed focus can be ascribed to the general recognition of the five-factor model (FFM) of personality, which provided a unifying framework to organize the most salient dimensions of the personality construct. The five personality traits incorporated within the FFM include extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. In a prominent meta-analytic review by Timothy Judge and his colleagues, the personality traits subsumed within the FFM were not only implicated in the prediction of which people tended to emerge within leadership positions (i.e., leader emergence) but also predicted indicators of leadership effectiveness. Specifically, four out of the five traits (namely, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) were found to be related to measures of both leader emergence and leader effectiveness, with extraversion demonstrating the strongest correlation with both criterion measures. When taken together, the five traits displayed noteworthy multiple correlations with both leader emergence (R = .53) and leader effectiveness (R = .39).

Unfortunately, only four studies included within that meta-analysis were conducted with athletes and coaches. As such, any inferences regarding the extent to which these effects might be evident in sport settings are limited. Nevertheless, it is entirely conceivable, for example, that those who “emerge” into positions of leadership within sport teams would be athletes who are more vocal and outgoing (i.e., score higher on extraversion). In short, it would be interesting to examine whether the same patterns of findings reported by Judge and his colleagues are also evident within the context of leadership in sport (e.g., team captains).
With the emergence of the FFM as a viable framework to understand leadership processes in sport, there is some recent evidence that the concordance of personality traits between coaches and their athletes is related to improved indicators of relationship quality. Specifically, in a study by Ben Jackson and his colleagues, when athletes were found to display a high degree of concordance (i.e., similarity) with their coaches in terms of extraversion and openness to experience this was found to be related to higher levels of commitment and relatedness among both coaches and athletes. Conversely, when athletes and coaches were found to be dissimilar on these personality traits, this was found to be related to lower levels of commitment and relatedness between both parties. In summary, and in spite of the recent dearth of research on trait leadership perspectives in sport, advances in personality science, including the widespread acceptance of the FFM, may have the potential to advance our understanding of leadership among athletes and coaches alike.


1. Jackson, B., Dimmock, J. A., Gucciardi, D. F., & Grove, J. R. (2011). Personality traits and relationship perceptions in coach-athlete dyads: Do opposites really attract? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12,222–230.
2. Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Illies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765–780.
3. Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35–71.
4. Tutko, T. A., Lyon, L. P., & Ogilvie, B. C. (1969). Athletic Motivation Inventory. San Jose, CA: Institute for the Study of Athletic Motivation.

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