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Can leadership be taught?

Leadership training has become a multi-billion dollar global industry. The reason for this growth is that organizations, faced with new technology, changing markets, fierce competition, and diverse employees, must adapt and innovate or go under. Because of this, organizations need leaders with vision and the ability to engage willing collaborators. However, according to interviews with business executives reported in the McKinsey Quarterly, leadership programs are not developing global leaders. And despite all the costly leadership training, Gallup surveys show that fewer than one third of employees in the United States and United Kingdom are engaged in their work.

Not only do these programs fail to develop leaders, executives openly say they can be destructive by wrongly assuming that one model of leadership fits all cultures and roles. The training sometimes clashes with the organization’s culture.

Can leadership really be taught? Experts have learned that people with leadership qualities can be helped to become more effective leaders. But no amount of training will make some people into the leaders organizations need.

What are the natural qualities of leadership? The answer follows from the difference between management and leadership. Management has to do with administering processes and getting tasks done. It doesn’t even require managers. A manager can give the functions of management to others. Management can be taught. Leadership is a relationship in a context. A leader cannot give away his or her particular relationship to followers. But why and how people follow the leader depends on the needs and values of followers as well as the qualities of the leader.

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“The Leader”, by David Spinks. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

People follow a leader either because they have to or because they want to. People follow dictators out of fear. They are seduced by demagogues. But neither dictators nor demagogues will gain the collaborative and creative followers organizations need. The natural qualities of a collaborative leaders start with a purpose and passion for improvement that connects with followers. This improvement may be the quality of life, population health, economic development, human development, productivity. Leaders energize organizations with their purposeful passion.

Many of those who flock to leadership programs lack this kind of purpose and passion. Rather, their purpose is punching the ticket needed for promotion, especially when it comes with a certificate from a prestigious program. They can be taught to understand themselves and others, listen to others respectfully, and communicate more effectively. Although these skills may strengthen leaders, they do not create leaders.

Leadership development is best done starting with the people at the top of an organization. The focus is on creating a leadership team that shares a leadership philosophy. This includes the purpose of the organization, the practical values essential to achieve that purpose, the criteria for ethical and moral decision making, and the measurements that will support the values and purpose.

It is also important to discover the personalities of leaders and how their intrinsic motivations best fit different leadership roles. Some are visionaries, some are operational experts, some are motivated to help people or to create collaboration. They need to share a leadership philosophy and learn to work as a team.

Featured image credit: “Snow Geese 03”, by TexasEagle. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Edith Onderick-Harvey

    Great post, Michael. I strongly agree with several of your points: leadership development starting at the top, creating a leadership team with a shared leadership philosophy and that there is no one ‘best’ way to lead. Different roles need different leaders with different motivations.

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