Can Leadership be Taught? What Most Companies Get Wrong

Have you ever considered the question of whether leadership can be taught?

There has always been a lot of debate about whether leaders are born or made.

I was thinking about this subject over the past week, and I remembered an interaction with a former employee. It was when I was a manufacturing plant manager at a large global company.

This employee was a manufacturing technician at the plant, and he stopped by my office one afternoon to talk to me.

I knew this employee very well. He was a hard worker who always went the extra mile. People looked up to him. He seemed to have a natural ability to lead others. He was someone I was considering for a supervisory role in the plant.

He asked me an interesting question, “I want to have your job. What do I need to do?”

The question took me by surprise. I had never had anyone ask me what it took to get to my position. I considered him as someone with leadership potential, so I was happy to share my story.

I proceeded to describe exactly what I had done to get into this role: I told him about four years of engineering school, a year of nuclear power training, five years of leading on a nuclear submarine, two years of MBA school and eight years of corporate leadership experience. I explained how I had a mentor and started small and gained more responsibility over nearly two decades of leading people.

I told him he could do the same.

He shocked me with his response when he said, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to do all that. I just want to have your job.”

This employee failed to understand that there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning how to be an effective leader. Many companies make this mistake as well.

Even if you are born with the natural skills to be a great leader, you need practice. All the ability and training in the world won’t help.

To learn leadership, you need to be a leader. 

You’ve likely heard of the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers. Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills, like playing the violin.

Sure, there are people born with the natural ability to play an instrument, but it takes years of practice and a great mentor to become a master of the craft.

Leadership is the same.

Even if someone is gifted with natural leadership ability, they need practice.

You can’t just send someone to leadership training and expect them to become a great leader. They can certainly learn the basics, but they have the opportunity to lead to develop leadership skills.

Like the violinist, they need to start small and practice leadership under an experienced mentor to gain experience.

The problem with most companies is that they promote people into management with no plan to develop the necessary skills to be a leader. At best, these employees might get some rudimentary leadership training, but most new managers are left alone to figure it out.

Often they are promoted, not because of their leadership potential, but because they were a solid individual contributor. Many of these managers slip back into what they are comfortable with, being a doer and not a leader.

Instead of practicing leadership, they spend their days in meetings, working on emails and doing spreadsheets. They never learn how to become an effective leader. They fail to build a relationship with their teams, establish clear goals and motivate employees.

And the failure of the leader eventually results in poor performance, disengaged employees and high turnover.

So, can leadership be taught?

The answer is yes. But not in the way of traditional training programs you typically in find in-house at various organizations.

The best way to learn to become an effective leader is to practice leadership. Aspiring leaders need to be given opportunities to lead small teams under the careful observation of an experienced leader.

Like a master-apprentice relationship, the young leader will gain mastery through continued practice and guidance.

When it comes to learning how to lead, there are no shortcuts.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.