A Chance Meeting at the Airport . . .

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.  -Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I was at my usual location a few Mondays ago, the airport. This time waiting for my flight from London to Sao Paolo, Brazil.  As I was sitting in the frequent flyer lounge a gray-haired gentleman sat down at the table next to me.  He was a few years older and looked like a curious combination of frequent traveller and college professor. Turned out it was a lucky guess on my part, because when I asked what he did for work, he replied he taught leadership at a university and was on his way back from a speaking engagement  in London.

So, choice time!  I could either say something nice and go back to my iPad where i was composing a new blog posting, or I could “fire for effect”.  Surprise. I fired a single tracer round (honest, it wasn’t me, it was my evil twin).

“You can’t teach leadership! It can be learned, but it can’t be taught.”

His head shot up and he looked at me oddly, obviously not expecting anything but polite “stranger talk”.  I grinned (always throws them off-balance).  I could see his mind racing, obviously thinking to himself, should I engage with this nutcase or just move tables?

So for the next fifteen minutes, until we each rushed off towards different destinations, we had a conversation about leadership, something we both knew a little about; he from an academic viewpoint and me from years of consulting with CEOs on thorny leadership issues.

He was fascinating, with a mountain of research about what constitutes good and bad leadership. He told me he lectured on leadership in the hope of helping executives and others better understand what’s required when a person moves into a position of leadership. “There are so few good leadership role models out there today, especially in politics and public service,” he remarked. “It’s important we point out what good leadership looks like.  And we have some excellent academic research to prove the point.”

He also understood my point of view. “Leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned!”  I spoke about the inner qualities of personal accountability, the inner drive to make a positive difference, about the courage to make the right decisions, not just the right political decisions. Without these inner ingredients, no amount of lecturing will take hold.

We shook hands and went our separate ways.  He had given me a lot to think about on my long flight to Brazil.  I suspect he carried some food for thought as well.

What’s your point of view on leadership education?

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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6 Responses to A Chance Meeting at the Airport . . .

  1. Steve Borek says:

    Interesting quote on leadership can’t be taught though it can be learned. I wish I heard the rest of the convo.

    I facilitate a workshop called The Leadership Challenge based on the book of Kouzes and Posner. They, and I believe, leaders can be made.

    The reason why many fall short is, they don’t put into practice what they’ve learned.

    Management sends a group of their people to a leadership workshop thinking they’re all leaders when they come out the other side. After a period of time, the majority go back to their old ways.

    Becoming a great leader is a marathon, not a 100 yard dash.


  2. I’m with Steve on the marathon. I might also add that leadership is like dieting…you have to keep at it and build discipline and muscle memory…too easy to get lazy and cut corners…great post John. And yes John, Chopra would agree that nothing is a coincidence.


  3. Dear John: I have an opposing view point. I believe that leadership can be taught. You teach leadership by teaching people to be leaders of themselves and then you will have a good leader. You taught me how to be a good leader when you helped me understand that leadership is about being a giver and having the drive to be honest with myself and others. The number one thing that a leader needs to have is the wiilingness to be a giver and then you follow that up with total honesty and then you have a great leader. Respectfully, Mike Petrusek


    • Steve Borek says:

      I think where John is coming from is the commitment to becoming a leader belongs to the student. They have to do the work.


  4. Pingback: So, let me tell you about my day Dad… – Lead.Learn.Live.

  5. Pingback: Leadership Can’t Be Taught . . . | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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