Born to lead or learn to lead? Truth is — no one knows for sure. But there is a small industry of writing, teaching, and speaking built on the proposition that you can at least talk about it. Studies by the Center for Creative Leadership and the Honeywell Corporation suggest that, after direct experience, the second source of learning about leadership is conversation with others.
To get in on real-time conversations about leadership, we subscribed to more than a dozen "mailing lists," where people trade insights and, it turns out, inanities. Sorting through hundreds of e-mail messages a day, we learned the first lesson of leadership: most of the time, those who are doing it aren't talking about it, and those who are talking about it aren't doing it.
What there is of value is useful questioning, intriguing philosophy, and a community of people talking across the boundaries of their organizations. This last point may be the most important: if you're interested in leadership's new models and styles, it's not always easy to find someone inside your own organization to talk with. On the Net there's a larger, more informal community that's eager to discuss everything from the most popular conferences they've attended to the most obscure books they've read.
The focus may wander and the quality is sure to vary — an essential fact of life on the Net. But if you follow the Fast Company recommendations, you're guaranteed to find some stimulating thinking and inspirational postings on a subject that continues to fascinate people in business: Was I born a leader? Can I learn to be one?
Talk Your Way to the Top
Are leaders born or made? The only way to find out is ... to talk about it. The best online conversations for people looking to lead.
Surprisingly, the best postings on leadership do not come from the mailing lists that focus on leadership. (A mailing list is a message-management system where you e-mail a list of subscribers who are corresponding on the same topic.) Too many of the mailing lists we checked out are loaded with "wannabees" whose postings reveal how little they know and how much they can imagine about leadership. It turns out that the best thinking is coming from people who talk about managing, learning, and training — which today translates into leadership.
Here are the three leading contenders for the best mailing list on learning how to lead. Choose the one that's right for you — unless you like to live online, subscribing to more than one list will crunch your mailbox.
Founded by: Richard Karash (email@example.com) , a trainer specializing in learning organizations who coaches facilitators at companies including Intel, Motorola, and Signet Banking Corp. He lives in Boston and is affiliated with the Framingham, Massachusetts consulting firm Innovation Associates.
Why founded: After posting a technical question about photography on the Internet two years ago, Karash was amazed to receive three "pure gold" responses within 24 hours. He had been researching new tactics for learning within organizations, and thought the topic of leadership deserved similar attention.
Number of subscribers: 1,632 as of this past December.
Messages per day: 15 to 20.
How to subscribe: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with this message: info learning-org
Who should join: Followers of organizational learning guru Peter Senge. "Anyone curious about learning how to learn within organizations, especially those who are interested in the personal journey that seems to result," says Karash.
Big picture: Karash spends an hour a day screening messages, and the effort pays off: few junk mail or inflammatory postings make it through to subscribers, and the conversation covers leadership as well as learning-org themes. Online participation seems to be stronger from consultants and academics rather than businesspeople. As a result, postings can veer off into the abstract and theoretical; the conversation itself can be downright dense. (One subscriber recently wrote an apology for failing to "contextualize" a previous comment.) There is, however, good give-and-take on training exercises, best books to read, and how to contend with organizational resistance to change.
The list offers a useful reminder: although real-world experiences are helpful, theory isn't necessarily a bad thing. A typical e-mail on leadership, for example, recommends Peter Block's book "Stewardship" (The Publishers Group, 1993) and follows up with a comment: "Traditional leadership, at its best, is a form of parenting that inspires a dependency, rather than the kind of empowered commitment that our institutions require."
Bottom line: Learning Org is best for brainstorming ideas. A bonus: e-mail Karash and he'll send you a recipe for starting your own mailing list.
Founded by: David Passmore (trdev-l-request@psu vm.psu.edu) , professor of education at Penn State University and a specialist in developing training tools for business and government.
Why founded: Passmore received a grant in 1990 from the Technical Foundation of America to start a list for a small group of academics doing research on training and development; since then the list has grown to include people who walk their talk.
Number of subscribers: 2,710 as of this past February, representing 45 countries.
Messages per day: 15 to 20.
How to subscribe: E-mail email@example.com with this message: "sub trdev-l your name" (send the message "signoff trdev-l" to unsubscribe).
Who should join: "The one-person training department who feels isolated in a firm where most people know nothing about training," says Passmore. "Also, the person who's in charge of training operations, for getting a good scan of what's going on."
Big picture: Screening here is much less rigorous than on the Learning Org list, with far more advertising allowed. This doesn't bother Passmore: "We like blatant advertising. One of the reasons people sign up is to learn about new products and job postings." Unfortunately, the light screen also lets through "questions which bring out the worst in the training and development field," admits Passmore. "There can be a lot of loose, New Age talk."
Even so, TR DEV is one of the most popular mailing lists on the Internet. Why? It's got what Learning Org lacks: practicality. One trainer uses it to get feedback on managerial courses taught by the AMA; a facilitator puts out a request for resources for a course he's teaching on supervisory leadership. There's specific advice on programs to attend, quotes to use, databases to search, tricks to try. And the people giving the advice are more often doers rather than talkers.
Bottom line: If you're willing to plow through the commercials, the list is worth joining for schmoozing and picking up useful leads and tips.
Founded by: Michael McCleve (firstname.lastname@example.org) at Indiana University.
Why founded: Information not available.
Number of Subscribers: Information not available.
Messages per day: 4 to 8.
How to subscribe: E-mail email@example.com with this message: sub ldr shp your name (send SIGNOFF LDRSHP to unsubscribe).
Who should join: People who must read anything and everything about leading.
Big Picture: The way founder Michael McCleve set up the list, he doesn't have to check or edit messages. In fact, he didn't respond to repeated attempts to contact him by e-mail. This list is running on cruise control.
Dutch Driver, who sends daily e-mails from the Department of Speech Communication at Texas A&M University, neatly illustrates the problem with unmoderated lists. Occasionally Dutch delivers four-star postings — like on New Year's Day, when he sent eight long messages full of valuable resources (books and workshops) on leading and facilitating. On another day, however, he sent repeated messages explaining how Kevin Costner in "The Field of Dreams" is our nearest approximation to the "servant leader."
Bottom line: Some of the messages get personal. That alone makes the list potentially entertaining and perhaps even useful. One subscriber, for example, writes about her attempts at leading "by putting the needs of others before mine. Am I perfect? Absolutely not." Iconoclasts only need apply.
Coordinates: For more info on Meaning and Wholeness, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org — for more on Turning Point, e-mail Sheryl Erickson at seerick email@example.com .
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.