Can Leadership Be Learned?

The principles of leadership remain constant; it's how leadership is put into practice that keeps getting smarter.

Can leadership be taught? The answer is simple. Yes, leadership, like all skills, can be taught. The literature is clear on the essential components, styles, and dynamics. Educational materials and programs abound.

But can leadership be learned? The answer to that question isn't obvious. It seems that leadership, one of the scarcest and least enduring components of human capital, is not learned easily or well.

First things first. What is leadership anyway? According to Al Gini, a lecturer at Loyola University in Chicago, leadership is a "power- and value-laden relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes and goals." In plainer language, leadership is the dynamic that galvanizes individuals into groups to make things different or to make things better -- for themselves, for their enterprise, for the world around them.

The "Great Man Theory" of human history focused our attention solely on the ideas espoused, the actions taken, and the outcomes generated by people in positions of power. Today, ideas and assessments of leadership are more democratic. Leadership itself is a collaborative function; the leader and the led are seen as in a potentially symbiotic and synergistic relationship. And power and impact are a function of that relationship rather than of a position.

Much of leadership education is devoted to teaching style and technique. Much of what is taught is, in fact, not leadership at all but management. It is entirely possible to learn and even to put into practice what is taught and still fail at being a good leader. The essential components of leadership have remained more or less constant: intelligence, insight, instinct, vision, communication, discipline, courage, constancy. All can be studied and studied again. The ability to ace leadership principles and practices does not, however, mean that leadership has been learned. Because what is being taught does not necessarily help leadership candidates learn the essentials. Knowing is one thing; doing is quite another.

Leadership 101 should focus on helping people develop the human qualities and capacities required for leading in virtually any endeavor. Here's the course load I recommend:

1. Thinking: Leaders must know how to gather, sort, and structure information, and then connect it in new ways to create intelligence. Today, being informed is confused with being smart.

2. Seeing: Leadership requires vision. And developing a vision requires the ability to see. To look backward and see clearly what has happened. To see what's in front of your nose, the present tense. To see ahead to the next day when the challenges will be greater. To see the future that will become reality.

3. Feeling: Yes, empathy for the led is vital. As Michael Hammer, coauthor of Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, says, "All change is loss. Even when change is for the better, there is still loss." Leadership is not simply a form of therapy, however. The essential feeling is the one in your gut where morality and certainty live. The right way ahead is not in the data. It is an informed intuitiveness. This is where charisma comes from.

4. Listening: All can hear. But few really listen. And too many people only listen to themselves. How to listen to colleagues and collaborators, how to listen to markets and constituencies, and how to listen to yourself -- all through the endless din of the present, the ominous voices of the past, and the deafening silence portending the future -- is vital.

5. Speaking: The watershed capacity in leadership is unquestionably communication. Through it, people are informed, convinced, united, motivated, and directed -- things that are critical to group enterprise from the inside and to buy-in on the outside. The powers to inform and persuade win the battles for hearts and minds.

6. Walking: The art and science of putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes referred to as "waking the talk," is the "doing" part of leading. Credibility comes from being first through the door to the unknown. Standing in one place, or stepping back while others take risks to make the frontier safe for others, simply doesn't cut it. Moving forward is not a leap or a sprint but a plodding process.

7. Fitness: Leadership requires strength and endurance in all areas -- physical, mental, and moral. Because leadership is a heavy load. Because it is a long journey that drains resources.

Is there a leadership school -- a "leadership boot camp" -- that teaches this stuff? I'm not sure. But to learn much of it, I would suggest a liberal-arts education supplemented with lots of real-world experience and with doing almost anything to make change. Change for the better is appealing; the work of creating it, however, is certainly fraught with social, emotional, economic, and other dangers. In the final analysis, the vast majority would rather study the life of leaders in class than learn the lessons of leadership in the world. Which is why leadership is often taught but so rarely learned.

Mark Sarner (mark_sarner@manifestcom.com) is president of Manifest Communications, Canada's leading social-marketing agency.

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