Teaching Leadership

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I’ve heard it said that leaders are born and that one cannot be taught to be a leader. Personally, I don’t buy that argument. It may be true that there are some folks who, no matter how hard you try, are not ever going to be “good leaders.” The problem here is that those who can be good leaders, who are given the chance to lead and are willing to learn from experience, from books and from mentors, turn out to be good leaders. So it’s easy to make the assumption that they were somehow “born” with the ability to lead. And when we come across those who just “never get it,” it’s equally easy to extend that experience to be all inclusive and say you can’t teach someone to lead. Well, I can’t teach some people to fish either.

Leadership characteristics
I do buy that there are certain characteristics that good leaders have that serve them in good stead, and I’m sure you have seen many lists as well. In no particular order, here’s a list from what I’ve learned:

  • Inspiring
  • Integrity
  • Strong moral compass
  • Curious
  • Decisive
  • Holds him or herself and others Accountable
  • Takes responsibility
  • Stakeholder oriented
  • Communicates well and listens actively
  • Clarity of vision/mission
  • Confident but not arrogant
  • Willing to take calculated risks
  • Willing to acknowledge and learn from mistakes
  • Develops leaders
  • Empathetic
  • Compassionate
  • Serves with humility
  • Insightful
  • Focused

Of course not every leader has every one of the traits on this list, or those on your comprehensive list either. When I think about the great leaders, many had quite a few of these traits.

Nature vs Nurture
You might say they were born with some of them, but in the end, the nurturing received from a very young age has a great deal to do with the way a leader develops and how she or he will be seen by others. I believe we learn from our environment when we are very young. I call that teaching. Some parents teach their children to be leaders – consciously or unconsciously.
It seems true that if a person grows up in adverse circumstances and is “wired” to overcome them and maintain a positive attitude, they may well gain the emotional intelligence to become inspiring leaders.

Creating Leaders
The point is I believe that the nurture aspect of our development as human beings is learned. It is hard, next to impossible for some, to overcome the impacts (positive or negative) of the environment in which we were raised. Yet it can and is often the case that we can learn new ways as we grow. We can change. We can admit that our belief was based on bad information and change that belief.

The reason I believe this is an important topic is because it is critical that we develop leadership at every level of our organization. Otherwise, our organizations cannot scale, cannot grow. To develop leaders, we must be willing to put in the effort, and if we believe that leadership cannot be taught, then we will not try and we will fail. On the other hand, if we are not also willing to understand that if a person simply will not be able to change a self-limiting belief, we will spend valuable time and assets with little or no return on the investment.

We should not confuse the fact that some people cannot learn to be leaders with the idea that leadership can be taught. Both are true – we can teach people to be leaders, it will be more difficult for some than for others. Some parents did the job for us, but a majority of leaders are developed as they go through their lives in our organization. The question for us is, do we have an environment, a culture that encourages leadership development or do we insist on developing followers?