Leadership Perspectives

Can Leadership Be Learned?

January 31, 2012

During the Q & A portion of a recent after-dinner speaking engagement, someone asked me the classic question.  It was the quintessential question – the one that I am almost always asked.  “Marie, do you believe that a person can learn leadership skills?  Or is it something that some people are just born with?”

It’s THE question, the one that cuts to the core of what scares us the most.  This leadership stuff is hard.   Some days it is REALLY hard and we fear that we might, fundamentally, not be up to the task because we weren’t BORN with it.  Other leaders make it look easy.  It’s logical to conclude that the knack for leading is just inherent in some people.

My answer to this question is always a version of the same.  Yes and Yes.

Are people born with leadership ability?  Yes, some people seem to naturally have a leg-up on this leadership thing.  Whether they were born with it or they were fortunate enough to have, at a young age, the environment and experience that cultivated leadership capacity within them, some people do seem to have a greater innate sense of how to be an effective leader.   (As an aside, my first grade school teacher wrote on my report card “Marie is a natural leader.”  My mother was pretty sure that the teacher was just too diplomatic to say “Marie is bossy.”)

Can leadership be learned?  At the same time, the answer is YES, leadership can be learned.  But teaching is not the same as learning and not everyone that is exposed to leadership teaching will learn.  That’s not because they are not intelligent. 

Leadership is not strictly about intellect; in fact some of the best leaders will admit that there are folks who are way smarter than they are. (Mind you, I am talking strictly about classic IQ here, not other types of intelligence.)  Learning to lead is as much about learning to connect with and be in relationship with people as it is about learning technical “how-tos.” 

To build real leadership capacity one must cultivate certain critical skills and practices:

Reflection.  When leaders reflect, they engage in self-examination and self-evaluation.  They observe themselves and others in situations.  They think about what has taken place and how effective their own actions have been.  Reflection allows leaders to learn to act with intentionality rather than impulsiveness.  Leaders use inquiry and analysis to improve their thought processes and decision making.

Listening. There is a difference between hearing and listening.  (Have your spouse or kids ever insisted “I hear you!” while you sensed that they were not listening at all?)   Strong leaders cultivate the ability to not just hear but to listen.  They listen for what is being said and for what is not being said.

Empathy. Not to be confused with simply being a softie, empathy is the ability that effective leaders have to identify with the feelings of others.  Note that a leader’s ability to empathize is correlated with the ability to identify his or her own feelings correctly.   (Most leaders believe they are quite good at identifying their feelings but, in reality, many cannot do so beyond generic terms such as “fine” or “bad.”)

Credibility.  Also known as “walking the walk” and “talking the talk”.  Leaders who want to cultivate credibility do as much as possible to minimize the differences between themselves and those that they lead. Special parking places for a select few are not credibility builders.  Distancing one’s self from disaster while others deal hands-on with crisis isn’t so great either.  Do you remember when NY Mayor Giuliani hit the streets of New York during and immediately after the 9/11 attacks?  Contrast that to the recent actions of Costa Concordia captain, Francesco Schettino.

Fitness. Remember when I said early on that this leadership stuff is hard? It’s a lot harder when you are sleep deprived, poorly fed, distracted, or run down.  As leaders, we have an obligation to show up physically and mentally fit and ready to lead.

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