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Professionalizing leadership – education

Barbara Kellerman looks at three crucial areas of learning leadership; leadership education; leadership training; and leadership development. In this post, she discusses the importance of leadership education and how it should be approached and improved.

In the last forty years the leadership industry has burgeoned beyond anyone’s early imaginings. Learning to lead has become a commonplace, in each of the different sectors; in every type of institution and organization; and in higher education, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

But if teaching how to lead has become ubiquitous, learning how to lead remains mysterious. Leadership has no body of knowledge, core curriculum, or skill set considered essential. And leadership has no license, or credential, or accreditation, or certification considered by consensus to be legitimate.

This explains the yawning gap between leadership and professions, such as medicine and law, and between leadership and vocations, such as hair-dressing and truck-driving, which also require demonstrable competence before people can practice.

In the past, leadership and teaching how to lead were considered the most consequential of all human endeavors. Confucius, for instance, saw himself primarily as an educator, especially though not exclusively as a teacher of leaders. He believed that only through study – a lifetime of study – would men be able to develop their minds and bodies, their characters and capacities, to lead wisely and well. Similarly, Plato’s Republic can be thought of as a treatise on education, an education for leadership. Such an education, Plato believed, took decades to complete. Only after half a lifetime of learning could a man aspire to be a great leader, a philosopher-king.

In the present, leadership is taught, and ostensibly learned, quickly and casually. With only one major exception – the military – leadership in America is assumed a skill that can be acquired in rather short order, in a course or during a semester, in executive programs or training sessions, in classrooms or on the job. Moreover, the distinctions among leadership education, training, and development are muddled. For example, the Harvard Business School states that its mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” The Harvard Kennedy School (where I teach) states that its mission is “to train enlightened public leaders.” And Stanford’s Graduate School of Business states that its mission is to “develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.” Who’s to say what the differences are? While all three of these institutions intend unmistakably to graduate leaders, their means to this end would appear, at least on the surface, to be different.

 Learning to lead has become a commonplace, in each of the different sectors; in every type of institution and organization; and in higher education.

I argue that all three of these pedagogies – education, training, and development – are essential to learning to lead. You must be educated to lead. You must be trained to lead. You must be developed to lead. It’s no accident that in the few American leadership learning initiatives that can legitimately claim to be excellent – such as those in the military – all three are part and parcel of the pedagogical process.

The curricula of professional schools, such as schools of medicine and law, are structured so that students are educated before they are trained and developed. Medical students study anatomy before they undertake to cut. Law students study civil procedure before they undertake to litigate. Leadership schools, even leadership programs of limited scope, should be structured to do the same.

Ironically, this was the original idea. When business schools were first established in the US, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a good liberal arts education was assumed a prerequisite to a good management education. It’s why learning to manage shifted from learning only on the job to learning, ideally, in the academy.

This raises the question of what should leaders learn? Specifically, what should a good leadership education consist of? To this question obviously are many answers, which is why the content of any leadership program should be decided by collective conversation and, ultimately, consensus. For the present purpose I will provide just three suggestions that are intended to signal substance, not to be engraved in stone.

First, a good leadership education should introduce leadership learners to great ideas. Ideas that most obviously are in the great leadership literature. What exactly is the great leadership literature? It consists primarily of classics that either are about leadership, such as Machiavelli’s Prince, or acts of leadership in and of themselves, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The classics of the leadership literature are of high literary quality, and they clearly have had an enduring impact. They are also timeless – and universal. They are transcendent. They include works by philosophers, pedagogues, preachers, and practitioners such as John Locke and Mary Wollstonecraft, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan, Larry Kramer and Vaclav Havel.

Second, a good leadership education should introduce leadership learners to great research. Research that has made an enduring contribution to our understanding of leadership dynamics, for example, from social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and political science. Enormous amounts of important information relevant to leadership and followership are in the social science literature, for example in work generated by Kurt Lewin and Irving Janis on group dynamics; by Stanley Milgram and Hannah Arendt on obedience to authority; and by Max Weber, Edwin Hollander, and James MacGregor Burns on leader-follower relationships.

Third, a good leadership education should introduce leadership learners to great art. Art that clearly relates to issues of power, authority, and influence and that is in great literature – think George Orwell’s short story “Shooting an Elephant.” That is in great art – think Picasso’s Guernica. That is in great music – think Beethoven’s “Eroica” (originally written for Napoleon) or, for that matter, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That is in great film – from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.

Most leadership programs do not now provide much, if any, leadership education. But let the perfect not be the enemy of the good! Even a modest leadership education will provide grist for the leader’s mill – reason to think before rushing to act.

Featured image credit: Classroom School Desks by Wokandapix. Public domain via Pixabay.

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