Can Leadership Be Learned?


Duff McDonald wrote a great piece in the New York Times today debating whether or not one can be taught to lead. As he says, all of the big business schools say it in their mission statements and taglines – ‘developing leaders who make a positive difference in the world,’ (University of Michigan’s Ross School), or ‘leaders who make a positive difference in the world,’ (Kellogg at Northwestern), etc. The messages all sound about the same.

But can leadership or being a leader be learned like algebra? I don’t think so. I think you can learn what a good leader looks like, who they are, how they inspire, and what they’ve done. I think you can learn how to “manage” a good company, but leading is a whole different animal. You’ve no doubt read the definitions for the two, managers take care of the operations, leaders provide the vision and the inspiration to act on something.The leader is the general who decides the strategy (usually not alone), and inspires others to follow the vision. Managers do not necessarily inspire but manage, monitor and operate or execute on the vision. Business school is usually about teaching what good management looks like, not how to lead.

So if you can’t get it in school, where does it come from? Like most other strengths that become talents, it’s something you have innately and is honed by your experiences and desires. From your earliest memories, I’m sure you can recall those fellow students who were “leading” or always were nominated to lead because they inspired something in others. There were also those who wanted to “manage” the process, the crowd, the purpose and in some cased their reputations to get ahead. These were and are not leaders.

It’s very similar to anyone who is at the peak of their field, a good athlete, musician, politician, etc. They have a natural talent for something and then through practice, and experience get better at it. Leaders are similar, but also different. Different because there is really not a way to “teach” it. They come with talent for inspiring people, knowing how to read people and helping coalesce an idea for the common good or purpose. They are humble, willing to change when needed, but passionately believe in something. They come in all different flavors, JFK and Rosa Parks are two examples. JFK, because of family of origin and privilege was in a position to lead and he did. Most remember him as inspirational, (although that has become tarnished a bit over time as some of his other behaviors have come to light). Rosa Parks was also inspirational and through one small act or courage to stand up for what was right, changed the course of history. That’s leadership in action and it can’t be taught in school.

Some get in positions of leadership that have no business being there. They are tyrants, dictators or just inept. True leadership starts with a strength and over time and through experience becomes a talent. Entrepreneurs are thrust into leadership positions. The wise one knows whether or not he or she is a good leader and hands the role of leader to someone else if they are not.

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