Leader of the pack. Can you learn Leadership?

Revisiting the thorny question today of whether ‘leadership’ is teachable. Is it something that you can learn to do, or is it something you naturally are: a leader? Sure, you can teach techniques and processes, you can even inspire and motivate people, but is this what Leadership is all about?

I guess that leadership has an emotional element, and, like any emotional intelligence, it’s a combination of interpersonal skills and knowledge. It’s not enough to simply know more than anyone else, or have more data that supports your argument, if you want to lead, you will need to inspire. But it’s not enough to just inspire, you will need a route map, an argument, something concrete that people can follow, be it a plan for a revolution or just a sales strategy.

My first thoughts are that you can teach someone to lead, but not necessarily to be an inspirational leader. The process of leadership is just that, a process. If you can manage people effectively towards a common goal, then you are, by definition, leading them, but this is not what is usually meant by ‘leadership’. Typically, we are thinking of more than that, we are thinking about the inspirational quality that means people want to follow, rather than need to follow because you tell them.

This type of ‘inspirational’ leadership is more intangible. It’s the source of those dreadful leadership videos that show you a picture of Churchill and the winning England squad and assume that you can be a leader by osmosis. We can certainly recognise inspirational leadership in others, but can we really identify what delivers it, and can we teach it? Is it like being an artist? You can teach someone to paint, how to hold a brush, how to mix colours, but you can’t teach them to be a great artist, a good one maybe, but not great. There is a spark, something different, that sits within, something innate.

Or maybe not. Maybe this is the defence of the ignorant. Maybe you can teach someone to be a great leader, or a great artist. The argument that people have innate skills carries so far, but not everywhere. Certainly some people will be great runners or high jumpers because of their physiology. Maybe they can be great mathematicians and musicians because of quantifiably measurable physiological differences too (although the evidence is that the brain is more able to morph it’s topography in response to stimuli, rather than determine outputs through predestined pathways). Maybe great leaders are just like the rest of us, but learn to be great? Perhaps they have just spent more time reading books on leadership and they have practiced and honed their skills?

I guess as there is no one definition of ‘great’, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Someone who is a ‘great’ athlete, won’t necessarily be a great business leader, and maybe people won’t follow either an athlete or businessman into the abyss, but will follow an inspirational postman who happens to be a great orator.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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