Can leadership really be taught?

I was recently conducting a leadership workshop and asked the delegates how many of them had previously been involved in leadership training and attended any other courses.

All the delegates raised their hands.

Why then, were they in this workshop session?

There was general consensus was that they felt that they still did not have a comprehensive enough understanding of leadership theory to apply it in practice and needed to expand their knowledge with new approaches and techniques.

This is a typical response by many people who have been striving to improve their leadership skills but it completely misses the point.

I am reminded of the Anthony Jay quote

“The only real training for leadership is leadership”

This recognises the inadequacies of attempting to dissect leadership into clear rules so that people can apply them. Yet, we still have leadership books being written and courses being offered which describe; ‘steps to leadership’, ’rules of leadership’, ‘leadership behaviour’ ‘leadership habits’.

These books seem to offer magic formulae, which if followed will enhance leadership effectiveness. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, the proliferation of these publications which form the bloated leadership industry only serve to further confuse would be leaders in their quest for excellence.

Leadership is actually a complex interaction between individual characteristics, context, behavioural dynamic and environment; where cause and effect are so inextricably linked that it really not possible to derive extensive rules. In this way, we must think of leadership as a complex art, not a prescribed set of behaviours or actions.

You can knock out a painting using the ‘painting by numbers’ approach, but it will not really be authentic, or saleable. The same can be said for leadership and learning to lead. Just as an artist’s style develops over time leadership development is a result of continued practice and development in safe workshop environments with skilled facilitators.

David Snowden in describing his ‘Cynefin’ framework of complexity theory ideally illustrates these points, where leadership is something which falls into the ‘complex domain’.

One of the great leadership writers – John Adair implicitly recognises leadership as a complex mechanism and his simple approach to leadership development does no more than give a high level simple framework from which to practice leadership.

His simple framework of task, team and individual can be applied to all situations in which leadership is required. However, a successful leadership outcome relies on the practice of the person and critical feedback which naturally result in ineffective behaviour being dampened and effective behaviour being amplified.

Leadership cannot be taught, it can only be learnt

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