According to a majority of leadership experts, the answer is no. “Leadership cannot be taught” is a phrase you’ll often hear leadership experts say when asked if leadership qualities are teachable.
Whether leadership can be taught is a question that has been debated for years. While many people believe leadership cannot be taught, others argue leadership can be learned through various leadership courses and programs. Is leadership something you are born with, or can it be learned?
We carried out some extensive research on leadership and leadership training to help you make up your mind about whether leadership can be taught or not. Let’s look at these two main leadership theories in detail below.
Almost every leadership expert you ask about leadership will tell you, without an iota of doubt, that leadership cannot be taught. Harold S. Geneen puts it this way, “leadership cannot be taught; it can only be learned.”
Now, it’s common knowledge that some people have leadership qualities right from birth. These are the people born to lead, and they continue to be leaders throughout their lives without any formal training or education in this field.
Just look at the last few U.S. presidents – Barack Obama is one of them; you’ll agree that they had exemplary leadership qualities right from birth, and they nurtured them. The majority theory insinuates that true leaders come naturally to a few people, and it is one of those God-given qualities that cannot be instilled by formal training.
There is a reason why most people who rise to be leaders in their field rarely have formal training or education as the reason behind their success in leadership.
For one, there are many skills required to make a good leader, and these range from communication, visioning, time management, and problem-solving, among others. Attending leadership seminars cannot teach these qualities because they require specific traits and inherent abilities that a few words cannot define.
Another reason leadership is not something that can be taught is that there are many types of leaders in the workplace. It would almost qualify as an insult to say one could learn how to lead as another person or group does. For instance, people who lead with a strong hand and demand that everyone else follows them will not work well with those who lead by example or inspiration.
Also, it is crucial for people in leadership roles to know themselves very well before trying to teach others how they do things like:
If someone doesn’t know themselves well enough to do these things, they can’t teach them because it would be a lie.
Believers of the ‘leadership cannot be taught’ theory believe majorly that leadership qualities are innate. You’re either born a leader or born a non-leader. A true leader with innate leadership skills develops them and yields outstanding leadership attributes admirable to his subjects.
As Kent Thiry puts it, “just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, leadership is in the eyes of the led.”
People can’t learn to become leaders if they lack the essential qualities of being a leader, like understanding the needs of followers, being accountable for their actions, and having the vision to lead them forward. Leadership can be developed, but it cannot be taught.
If we look at history, all the great leaders, like Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela, had to fight their inner demons and overcome obstacles before becoming successful leaders. If they didn’t have these qualities from birth, it is safe to say that they developed them along the way through experience and practice.
Conclusively, this theory of ‘leaders cannot be taught’ agrees that leaders are born with innate leadership qualities in their DNAs. They only work to develop these qualities to make them better leaders in the long run. The leadership attributes you’re born with (that can’t be taught) include:
People born with these traits only develop and optimize them to become great leaders – they’re never taught these skills.
While this theory doesn’t entirely state that leadership can be taught in schools and seminars, it does imply that leadership skills can be developed by learning.
Those who subscribe to this theory believe leaders aren’t born with all the skills they need to become great leaders.
This theory agrees that leaders aren’t born with crucial attributes like self-esteem and have to intentionally and consistently learn and nurture such skills. Great leaders must have confidence in themselves, which means they must learn the crucial basic skills they need from an early age in life.
“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” - Arnold H. Glasow.
A leader who lacks crucial skills like self-esteem and self-control, which are all learned as one grows up, can barely take the blame for someone else’s mistake or own up to his. This greatly agrees with what Arnold Glasow said.
Numerous leadership aspects require consistent practice and nurturing. Great leaders of the olden and modern days didn’t just appear out of the blues. They were once where you are now, and they had to deal with similar problems as you do.
They failed, learned, and developed themselves into the leaders they became. These attributes, such as self-esteem and communication, cannot be taught experience since leadership requires a sense of maturity that only comes with age, experiences, and mistakes.
Poor communicators with innate leadership attribute poor communication as a hindrance to becoming great leaders. Those with low self-esteem become great leaders through positive thinking, self-belief, and action.
Leadership requires more than academic learning since you learn about the world by making mistakes. Every mistake made is a great chance to improve and develop leadership qualities. To be a leader, you have to be able to see it that way.
You can consistently and intentionally learn about the leadership attributes you lack to become a good leader. This means there is only a specific set of qualities one can learn along their leadership journey. They include:
While these skills are essential to help you grow further, they are not what leadership is entirely made of. You’ll still need innate abilities like confidence, charisma, and the ability to build rapport with others.
You can learn to unlock your full leadership potential, but it cannot be taught because a good leader needs these innate abilities. These attributes are developed over time through experience and not necessarily learned in school or at work. We all have them within us; we need to identify them and focus on developing them fully.
While it is easy to learn the skills, you will never be a leader without these inherent abilities. You can read books or take courses online, but that won’t work if you don’t have what makes someone an effective leader already within yourself.
Some leaders will have the ability to be effective in every situation. Some need a little push or challenge to bring out their leadership skills and abilities. However, some people are not born with them; they cannot develop these innate traits no matter how hard they try because it’s simply not who they are as individuals.
Because of challenges, people with leadership skills can learn their hidden leadership skills and nurture them to help others. For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic helped many leaders learn skills like resilience, adaptability, and flexibility.
Since leaders are expected to be a calming force, challenges can help them manage difficult situations and restore hope to their subjects.
While it is evident leadership cannot be taught, it’s also true you can learn some traits to become a better leader. One of the main ways to better your leadership skills is by reading helpful blogs and books about leadership skills.
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