The philosophy of Leadership, Part I

Leadership Can Be Taught

Leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices. Leadership is not something mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood by ordinary people. Given the opportunity for feedback and practice, those with the desire and persistence to lead—to make a difference—can substantially improve their abilities to do so.

Can leadership be taught? Our answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

Isn’t it amazing we have never been asked the question “Can manage­ment be taught?” We just assumed people can be educated and trained to be managers—and further developed into even better managers. Based upon this belief billions of dollars have been invested in undergraduate and grad­uate programs. Imagine what might be possible if everyone assumed the same about leadership.

Leadership is not just about leaders. Nor is leadership about some posi­tion or place in an organization or community. In today’s world—of unre­lenting changes in technology, marketplaces, organizational alliances, merg­ers, and partnerships; of increasing global competitiveness; of accelerating diversity of ideas along with a rainbow coalition of individual backgrounds, beliefs, abilities, and experiences; of continuing reengineering of processes and right-sizing of organizations and flattening of organizational forms— leadership must be everyone’s business.

The caliber of managers has been raised by assuming people can learn attitudes, skills, and knowledge associated with good management practice. The same can be done with leadership. Viewing leadership as a non-learnable set of character traits dooms societies, and their organizations, to having only a few good leaders. It is far healthier and more productive to start with the assumption that it is possible for everyone to lead.

We believe in self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we assume that leadership is learnable, we discover how many good leaders there really are. People do tend to perform to the level of their own and other people’s expectations, and this phenomenon is well documented across adults in the workplace and children in school. If we, as teachers (or parents, or managers, or friends) begin with the assumption that some people have leadership skills and some people don’t, then we are likely to get exactly the kind of leaders we expect.

Certainly we should not mislead people into believing they can attain unrealistic goals. Neither should we assume only a few will ever attain excel­lence in leadership or in any other human endeavor. Those who are most successful at bringing out the best in others are those who set achievable but stretching goals and believe they have the ability to develop the talents of others. You must believe leadership can be taught.

We would not have written The Leadership Challenge if we did not believe it is possible for ordinary people to learn how to get extraordinary things done. We would not have bothered unless we believed ordinary people can become extraordinary leaders. Chances are you also believe leadership can be learned, or you would not be teaching (or contemplating teaching) a lead­ership class. Maybe the qualities of leadership will be exhibited on behalf of the school, or the church, or the community, or the scouts, or the union, or the corporation, or the family. In our studies, everyone has had a leadership story to tell. Somewhere, sometime, the leader within each of us gets the call to step forward.

Harry Levinson and Stuart Rosenthal, both psychiatric experts, make this comment about the development of leaders: “Our point of view is that some people want to be leaders and see themselves as leaders. Others rise to the occasion. In either case they see what has to be done and do it. They provide stability and support while defining goals and providing reassurance. Sometimes they become leaders when they become angry about something, catch fire, and start to lead. . . . [People] become leaders when they learn to take a stand, to take risks, to anticipate, initiate, and innovate.”

The same can be said for the leaders we studied. Many of them did not initiate the personal best leadership projects they wrote and talked about, yet they rose to the occasion. Some got angry and caught fire. Others accepted an assignment and then found something within them they had not known they had. None of us may know our true strength until challenged to bring it forth. As author and social activist Rita Mae Brown has noted: “People are like tea bags. You never know how strong they’ll be until put into hot water.”

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