Can Leadership Be Taught Essay

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.

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.

People are often promoted to positions of leadership and management in the workplace without having any formal training in either. While some rise to the occasion and function well in their new positions, others flounder.

The question is: what can those who do not have natural leadership and management skills do to avoid failing in their new roles or to recover if they're already struggling?

Decision makers often assume that a person who demonstrates competency and performs well in their job also is likely to have leadership and management potential. However, management and leadership require skillsets that are qualitatively very different to the tasks one performs in more content driven positions.

As a result, many new leaders and managers find themselves in roles for which they are entirely unprepared. If they believe, as many people do, that leadership is a quality one is born with and fear, as many new managers do, that they were not, they are likely to feel both uncomfortable and intimidated by the expectations thrust upon them.

In many cases, they choose to manage these concerns by focusing on the substance of their role and minimizing or avoiding the human and managerial elements entirely. Unfortunately, it is exactly those dimensions of their new roles that form the heart and foundation of good leadership. 

Others never contemplate their managerial style or leaders philosophies at all. They just plow ahead and do things as they see fit, often while being completely blind to their impact on the very people they are supposed to inspire.  

The good news is leadership skills can be improved if one is willing to be self-reflective and make efforts to do so. Indeed, studies indicate leadership tends to be only 30 percent genetic. Therefore, all newly minted managers would be wise to consider it necessary to hone and sharpen their leadership skills.

Indeed, a recent study from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign demonstrated that a fifteen week academic course was able to significantly improve the leadership skills of the participants by using the ‘Ready, Willing and Able’ model (which examines whether students are ready to lead, motivated to lead, and effective in their efforts).

The study identified the most important factor for successful students as being their ‘Willingness'—how motivated they were to lead in the first place (or for new managers, how motivated they are to acquire and develop their own leadership skills).

It is when new managers are not quite ‘Ready and Willing’ that they are most likely to stick their heads in the sand and either ignore their role as leaders or assume a ‘stock’ leadership position such as being authoritarian.

Instead, new managers—especially those who feel hesitant about leading—need to acknowledge (to themselves) that they feel unprepared (or unequipped) to assume a leadership role and translate these worries and concerns into motivation to improve their skillset.

The best place to start their journey is by performing a self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. 

3 Questions Every New Leader Should Ask Themselves

All leaders but especially new ones should ask themselves three basic questions:

1. What qualities do good leaders possess?

2. Do I have these qualities?

3. How can I acquire or improve the leadership qualities I lack?

The University of Illinois study defined leadership as “An individual influencing a group of people toward a common goal”. With that definition in mind, new leaders were encouraged to focus on their interactions, relationships, and communication, such that their impact actually moved their teams toward the common goal. 

It is also important for new leaders to frame their new roles as a journey of necessary corrections and adjustments in their communications and even in their self-identity that take place as they hone their leadership skills and move towards greater competency.

Self-monitoring and self-assessment are crucial in these initial stages of leadership development and managers need to be honest with themselves about their successes and failures, and view through the prism of ‘influencing people toward a common goal’.

The bottom line is that promotions to positions of leadership, while celebrated initially, can soon lead to failure if one does not take the time to assess their strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and show willingness to change their approach and enhance their knowledge and skillset when necessary.

For many science based techniques for avoiding and recover from failure check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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