Can you teach leadership?

Jon Windust

This is the wrong question. It should be “what is the most effective way to learn leadership?”.

I advocate an apprenticeship-like approach which I introduced briefly in the article Disrupting Human Resources. I’ve been interested to read about an increasing emphasis that apprenticeships in general will take in the US in a similar way that they currently do in Europe. While they aren’t talking about apprenticeships for leaders, I believe organisations should be setting up apprenticeship-like processes that take aspiring leaders through a multi-year learning journey as they progress from team leads to senior leaders.

Why? Apprenticeships exist because some skills are difficult to master without repeated application in a real-world setting. Some knowledge can also be difficult to codify, which means that the only way they can be taught is by the learner experiencing something with the assistance of a more skilled guide. These situations describe leadership precisely. Human beings aren’t logic machines, we have emotions and social rules. Thinking that leadership can be taught is a mistake. You can provide a framework, but then a person needs to experience it, over and over with guidance from an experienced person. This builds the tacit knowledge needed to become a great leader.

Can you teach leadership?

Let me give you an example. Autonomy is great right? But what do you do if you’ve provided autonomy and your team isn’t getting results or even putting in much effort? I’ve seen inexperienced leaders in these situations. They do the best they can, but when you’re confronted with something that doesn’t work as it is described in theory, a person’s belief in leadership method can crumble. The natural reaction is to take either the passive route and put your head in the sand or use the aggressive option and demand action. Neither of these resolve the problem. What’s needed in these circumstances is for a more experienced leader to coach the less inexperienced leader. Through exploring what they’ve done, haven’t done and what foundations were put in place they will come to an answer. Any answer is just an initial answer. Solving this sort of situation takes time and many adjustments.

Human beings aren’t logic machines, we have emotions and social rules.

My view of the leadership apprenticeship is mixed mode learning. That is formal training and learning materials to provide a leadership framework on top of which experience is added. Experience is first gained by shadowing leaders, then short duration projects in which they take responsibility and lead a group of people. Managing freelancers on a project is an ideal opportunity to start learning how to set clear expectations, provide feedback and keep things on course.

Next is a team lead role. Why? Because this role is characterised by the person still doing some of the work directly. They lead by example and work with the team. This phase helps a person to start making the transition from achieving things individually to achieving things by leading a group of people to collectively do them. The team lead role can be challenging for highly skilled and talented people who have internalised standards for how things should be done and to what quality. Working with a more experienced guide during this phase can help a person recognise how they need to change their thinking and approach. Without this, a new leader is at risk of making damaging mistakes such as micromanagement.

As a person progresses into more senior leadership roles they completely transition from directly doing end work activities to leading others to do end work activities. New and more advanced skills are needed in this phase that focus on strategy execution. Any apprenticeship should continue through to senior roles to help a person recognise and adapt to the more strategic and less hands-on nature of their role. While some will thrive and love the changing nature of the role, it should be recognised that some will not enjoy the less hands on nature of it. A guide can help a person recognise this and avoid career damaging moves.

For more insight on leadership skills see my article on the five keys to leadership you need to know.

What is the most important thing you have learned about leadership?

Jon Windust

“What is the most important thing you have learned about leadership?”

Leadership is a skill, the mastery of which takes many years. Don’t assume you’ve learned it. This is particularly true for “natural born leaders” who are most susceptible to thinking they have it covered.

When people say someone showed great leadership they usually mean one or all of:

  1. A person set a great example for others to follow.
  2. A person made a tough or even courageous decision to change something for the better.
  3. A person was able to motivate a group of people to cooperate and achieve something substantial.

It is true that some people will naturally exhibit the first two points above. Some will even perform some of what is needed for the third point by force of their personality. But, I am yet to meet someone who possesses all of the skills out of the box to get people to cooperate to achieve something substantial. Some people get a head start because of their competence, courage or social skills. But it takes time for anyone to learn how to lead well.

I’ve previously written about some of the most important aspects of leadership. As a person progresses over their career from team lead to senior leader, new skills and levels of capability are required. Read leadership theory, certainly, but seek out those who have done it successfully and learn from them.

One of the most effective learning experiences I have had is regular formal catch-ups with other CEOs where the more experienced help the less experienced understand how to handle specific situations. In these discussions there are normally a number of options put forward by the different CEOs. From this, the person learning is able to choose their path. But once the path is chosen, the learning hasn’t really taken place until it’s put into action. Once done, positive or negative reinforcement will tell the CEO whether to take the same action next time or try an alternative route. Much of leadership is learnt this way. Theory provides a foundation. Natural ability provides a partial foundation. But true learning takes time and a myriad of experiences.

How do you know you are ready to be a leader?

Jon Windust

There are two elements to this answer.

One is the desire to be a leader.  The other is possessing some of the skills needed to be a leader.

The motivation to be a leader can come from a number of places.  The desire to collaborate with a group of people is a good starting point, but not enough on its own. Couple with a drive to help people, pass on your knowledge/experience and influence people to be able to achieve more and you have a good starting point.  Later as you encounter tough problems, you’ll know whether you want to stay a leader.

Next are the technical skills needed to be a leader.  A survey of over 300K people identified 7 key skills needed:

  1. Inspires and motivates others
  2. Displays high integrity and honesty
  3. Solves problems and analyzes issues
  4. Drives for results
  5. Communicates powerfully and prolifically
  6. Collaborates and promotes teamwork
  7. Builds relationships

You need a number of these skills and be on the way to developing the others.

A friend wanted to be a school teacher.  Luckily, early on in her training she experienced a classroom environment and her first real introduction to teaching.  This experience provided her with the insight to know that teaching wasn’t for her.  Getting early experience in leadership can be equally valuable in helping you answer the question.