Can We Really Teach Leadership?

I often hear this question framed as a skeptical challenge to the idea that leadership can indeed be taught. The answer to this question actually reveals the assumptions that we may be making about the word “leadership.”

If we assume that the word leadership is synonymous to “leader,” then the skepticism is warranted. Some people, the argument goes, have a natural talent to lead – similar to the way that some athletes have innate gifts, which make them rise above others. I call this the “pedestal” view of leadership. Even if we accept this perspective as valid, which I do not, there is a certain level of arrogance to the view; imagine thinking that talented athletes do not have to learn the rules of the game or practice new techniques. Leaders, even if you assume that they are “innate leaders,” still need to learn how to lead, practice leading, and certainly learn from their mistakes. Therefore, the pedestal view of leadership is a weak argument against whether we can teach leadership.

It is high time that we challenge this pedestal perspective and frame “teaching leadership” as part of a developmental dynamic that we all experience in our personal and professional lives. Instead of equating leadership with authority, we should expand our view to see leadership as a process made up of key components that perform different functions. Once we become aware of the role that these different components play in leadership, we can then gain a higher level of self-awareness, which in turn will help us become more effective in whatever role we may play in the process – and that includes followership, as well.

In Understanding Leadership (Routledge, 2015), Robert McManus and I identify five components that are key to the leadership process – leaders, followers, goals, context, and cultural norms. We then offer a simple definition of leadership as “the process by which leaders and followers develop a relationship and work together toward a goal (or goals) within an environmental context shaped by cultural values and norms.” The last two components (context and culture) are often left out of definitions of leadership, as if the leader-follower relationship takes place in a vacuum. Carrying the athletics analogy further, someone who is great at baseball does not necessarily make an outstanding basketball player, and vice-versa. President Lyndon Johnson was great in domestic politics – successfully advancing the legislative cause of the Civil Rights movement – but he failed miserably in the foreign-policy realm. Sometimes, skills from one context are not necessarily fungible.

The division of labor – leader and follower – is very fluid, particularly in an organizational setting with multiple levels of responsibilities. I often tell my students that they may view me as a leader in the classroom, but if the vice president of academic affairs were to step in that same classroom during my class, I would also be wearing the follower hat. In certain circumstances, we are called to be leaders, while in others we are expected to let others lead. Understanding context and cultural norms can help us realize when to “step up” and when to “step back.”

In Teaching Leadership (Edward Elgar, 2018), Sadhana Hall and I take this view of leadership as a process and offer three possible answers to the question of whether leadership can be taught. First, we argue that we can teach about leadership, helping our learners understand the intricacies of leading and following within different contexts and cultural norms. There is no manual for leadership. Therefore, we – whether leading or following – must understand that the process is extremely complicated. It is, after all, a human phenomenon. Leading is as much an art as it is a science. There is a certain beauty and elegance to the leader-follower relationship, similar to watching a well-played soccer match. Second, we can teach for leadership. In Teaching Leadership, Hall and I frame this perspective as “building leadership capacity and competency.” Most of our students join leadership programs with this second focus in mind. They want to expand their leadership skills in order to become more effective as leaders. This transactional expectation reflects the “pedestal” view of leadership. Somehow, if they can only master certain skills, they will become great leaders. In reality, without the awareness of how leadership works as a process – including the knowledge of how context and culture play a role in leading and following – they may be sorely disappointed. Third, we can teach leadership as “practical wisdom.” The combination of the first two (knowledge and skill- building) leads to leadership development (“growth as a leader”). When our learners graduate from our leadership programs, they are not done growing. In fact, leadership development is a lifelong learning process that includes learning from failure.

We can do a great favor to our learners by teaching them how to continue learning throughout their lifetimes. That is one of the greatest gifts, as it enables them to continually grow as effective leaders and followers. We should empower them to move beyond the pedestal view of leadership, so they can instead view it as a complex process that requires humility, elegance, comfort with ambiguity, self-awareness, and ultimately, lifelong learning.

Dr. Gama Perruci is the Dean of the McDonough Leadership Center and McCoy Professor of Leadership Studies at Marietta College in Ohio. He is also the Past Chair of the International Leadership Association (ILA), a global nonprofit organization dedicated to the study and practice of leadership. His upcoming book is entitled Global Leadership: A Transnational Perspective (Routledge, 2019).