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Teaching Leadership in Context

Leaders can be born or taught, but either way, good leadership cannot exist in a vacuum.

I have spent most of my career trying to teach leadership and have come to this conclusion: We cannot create leaders in a classroom — indeed, pretending to do so is destructive — but we can have significant impact on people who are already leaders.

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People who are not leaders — whether because they have not yet had the chance to become one or because they do not have the potential to be one — have no business in a leadership classroom. We cannot create leadership out of nothing — out of the absence of potential and experience. Leadership training has to take place in context, namely with a personal understanding of what it means to lead and with a deep knowledge of a specific application of that leadership. Only then can the learning be appreciated and applied. Otherwise, the training takes place in a vacuum, without context.

This means that most of the people who graduate from U.S. MBA programs each year do not belong there — at least those with little managerial experience who believe they are being trained to manage. (MBA programs are fine for teaching the B, specialized training in the business functions, but not for the A, administrating that knowledge.)

In fact, I believe this is one of the factors significantly responsible for a style of managing that is becoming increasingly prevalent these days. I call it “dramatic managing” — full of sound and fury, and signifying not much more than “let’s get bigger, grander, more global.” Disconnected managers give us disconnected strategies; they are leaders in name only, and in the current fashion, they are more concerned with their own bonuses than with the long-term viability of their enterprises.

On the other hand, people with deep managerial experience have all kinds of wonderful things to learn in the classroom — not least, from each other. When programs are designed to use that experience and focus on the practice of managing and leading (two terms that should not be separated), then the classroom can become magical. I have seen this time and time again in our programs, just as I have seen the cynicism and arrogance of inexperienced people pretending to become managers in some other classrooms.

So, are leaders born or made? Leaders are born and made. Is there such a thing as natural leadership? Yes, and there is such a thing as natural leadership development.

Henry Mintzberg (mintzberg@embanet.com) is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University and founding director of the International Masters Program.

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