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Professionalizing leadership – training

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

Leadership is taught as casually and carelessly as ubiquitously. With few exceptions, the leadership industry sends the mistaken, misguided, and misleading message that leadership can be learned quickly and easily in, say, a course or a workshop; in a year or even a term; in an executive program or a couple of coaching sessions. A far cry from professions such as medicine and law – and even from vocations such as hair dressing and truck driving, all of which presume first, a careful course of study and second, credentialing before permission to practice.

No such luck with leadership. Leadership, we seem to believe, can be learned on the fly or on the job. To wit the incumbent American president, who was elected to the nation’s highest office with zero political experience and zero policy expertise. It’s not acceptable for a plumber to be so woefully undereducated, so untrained, so completely undeveloped. Which raises this question: What if leadership were conceived a profession instead of an occupation? What then would leadership learning look like?

In my first post, I discussed what a good leadership education could consist of. I suggested that all leadership learners should be introduced to great ideas about power, authority, and influence, especially those in the great leadership literature. (Think Machiavelli and Marx, Freud and Friedan.) I further proposed that all leadership learners should be informed about the most important, relevant social science research. (Think Weber and Hollander, Milgram and Janis.) Finally, I recommended learning about leadership through art – such as music and film, painting and poetry. (Think Shakespeare and Scorsese, Beethoven and Dylan, Picasso and Basquiat.)

Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that a good leadership education has been provided. What should come next? What constitutes good leadership training? Training in the world of work is presumed to provide the skills and behaviors necessary for good practice, for performing tasks typically associated with certain vocations or professions. Training is apprenticing that – ideally –weds experience to education. So, for example, after medical students have learned the fundamentals of the human body in a first-year course on anatomy, they go on, in their  second year of medical school, to learn proper practice through clinical experience.

 What constitutes good leadership training? Leadership training falls into three categories.

Leadership training falls into three categories. The first is skill development. Students of leadership are taught certain skills presumed to be particularly pertinent to the effective exercise of leadership. They include: communicating and collaborating; decision making and negotiating; persuading and influencing; organizing and strategizing. Because learning to lead is assumed a process that can be short and sweet, these skill development experiences are generally brief – at most a single semester. More typically they are embedded in executive programs, which are shorter in duration, many lasting no more than a week or even a weekend.

The second category of leadership training is experience, experience that can be and, some would argue, almost always should be, on the job. Jay Conger and Beth Benjamin describe this as “action learning,” a process by which leaders and managers learn from their own superiors and subordinates, and their own peers, in their own workplaces. In addition to external work, “experience” can reference internal work, such as developing self-awareness and undertaking self-analysis, alone and in groups. Reflections, self-reflections, such as these are now entrenched in many if not most leadership learning curricula, for instance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. A staple of its curriculum is LEAD, or Leadership Effectiveness and Development. The intention of the course is to “enhance self-awareness and to teach students how to learn the ‘right’ lessons from experience.”

Finally, leadership training includes what might more properly, or at least more precisely, be called management training. These consist of bread and butter instructions on how to run an organization or institution, no matter its type or task; small or large; public, private, or nonprofit. Such instructions might be on managing finances; managing technologies; managing marketing; managing people; and managing strategies, which is to say, implementing intentions deemed central or even critical.

During the last forty years the leadership industry has grown from incipient to a big, burgeoning, money-making machine. For various reasons – not the least of which is money – individuals and institutions that teach how to lead have come during this period to focus primarily or even exclusively on leadership training. Unlike professional schools, and for that matter vocational schools, they tend to neglect largely or even ignore entirely leadership education. This means that most leadership learners are being told to go to step two without even being informed about what I deem the critical importance of step one. This is not, then, to denigrate or diminish the importance of leadership training. Rather it is to argue that leadership teaching that is serious should be somewhat professional rather than simply occupational. First let’s provide leadership learners with a good education. Then we can, and should, proceed to provide them with good training.

Featured image credit: People Girls Women Students Friends by StockSnap. Public domain via Pixabay.

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