What Leadership Class Did They Take?

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
~Thomas Jefferson

Great news!  The discussion about leadership from my previous blogs, A Chance Meeting at the Airport and Leadership Can’t Be Taught . . ., is still going strong, evoking a lot of differing opinions and valuable insights for me.  Thanks to everyone who has joined in.

In order to throw a little more gasoline on the fire (for all you rockers out there, remember Bonnie Tyler’s great line: “living in a powder keg and giving off sparks”) I have another thought about the topic of why leadership can’t be taught.

Let’s look at some very famous and well-respected leaders.  I think there would be pretty much unanimous agreement that the following individuals displayed great positive leadership:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Martin Luther King
  • Mother Teresa
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Winston Churchill

So, my question is very simple.  What leadership class did they take?  Did they attend a seminar on leadership?  Did they go to the World Business Forum in New York City and listen to Jack Welch or Jim Collins? Did they read “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” or any of the many popular books on leadership found on the Amazon best seller list?

“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result”  ~Mahatma Gandhi

Obviously not.  They weren’t taught leadership in a classroom or a seminar.  They learned it themselves.  How?  By reading history books and stories about great leadership in the past, by having a cause that was bigger than their own needs, by putting themselves “in harm’s way” and wading into the issues others avoided, by having faith in themselves, their vision, their God, and other people.

Leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned.

My advice to those seeking to develop greater leadership skills; get out of the classroom, avoid the seminars, instead get out into the world.  Find a big problem and volunteer to fix it.  Take on the worst assignments at work.  Study great leaders (read about them, don’t take the “rented knowledge” passed out by professors and leadership gurus – do your own homework).  Leadership can be learned, if you have the courage and commitment.

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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8 Responses to What Leadership Class Did They Take?

  1. You are baiting us John. (and I can see you smiling now). Happen to directional agree. However, everyone can improve from their own respective baseline…


  2. David. Baiting? Maybe a little. Serious? Absolutely. There is no other way to learn leadership, at the being level, than to get out into the world and make something difficult happen. It’s the same argument as put forth by Henry Mintzberg when he says that MBA schools don’t develop managers. It’s the experience, not the rented knowledge.


  3. mimijk says:

    I’m on board with you John (sorry that’s as far as I can go with anything even remotely near fishing – I know nothing about it!!). Leadership is an active practice, and as such if you’re going to learn anything you have to get up, get dirty, listen hard and apply what you’ve learned. You have to boldly fail and succeed with humility, inspire with your hopes and intent for the future and earn trust and respect daily with your integrity, depth and breadth of knowledge and sense of purpose. Get in the game, don’t read the wrap up on the sports page the day after.


  4. I learned too late ( or perhaps just in time) that John’s right. I tried for years to avoid the tough assignments to “do what I loved.” Much of what I loved was avoiding hardship assignments. I enjoyed going back to school, reading the latest books, talking to “experts.” Lucky for me, I had a mentor who wouldn’t let me off the hook and pushed me shaking into the HR leadership of a turnaround business in the midst of an acquisition. At the time, I didn’t love it. Now, I look back to this assignment that was the absolute best preparation I could have had to further my career.

    As a current university faculty member, I won’t discourage anyone from trying to gain more knowledge through classes, books and seminars. But there is no substitute for putting this knowledge to work in tough roles. Knowledge makes us smart. Experience makes us leaders.


  5. Steve Borek says:

    John, as a facilitator of The Leadership Challenge workshop, I disagree on your suggestion to avoid these learning opportunities.

    The workshop environment gives the attendee a baseline from which to build their skills.

    The mistake people make is not putting what they’ve learned into practice. After a few days, they go back to their old ways. In my coaching model, I don’t let that happen. I provide consistent follow up to ensure they’re moving forward.

    I do agree with you to take on a project that nobody wants. Nothing better than learning in the moment. I’ve got the t-shirt.


  6. Dear John: Unfortunately when the leaders that you referenced were alive and displaying their leadership skills, there were no leadership seminars being taught as far as I can tell. As you must know, leadership seminars did not appear on the seen until companies like “Leadership Dynamics” and “Mind Dynamics” and “PSI World” came on the seen back in the 1960s and 1970s of which you, yourself were a student. Men like William Penn Patrick and Thomas D. Willhite pioneered leadership training back in those days and their trainings were extremely effective. How can you say now that leadership cannot be taught when you yourself are a product of those philosophies and trainings. A darn good product of those trainings and philosophies I might add. Certainly you can learn leadership skills on your own, but how can you deny, after being a product of leadership trainings yourself, that it is not possible to teach leadership. The military is just one example of leadership being taught. Do they not teach leadership skills at Annapolis to military personel on a daily basis? At the least you would have to concede that good leadership training is a catalyst to the genesis of someone becoming a leader that has no leadership skills. You and I both are products of PSI World’s leadership inspiring programs. You have not sold me on “leadership can’t be taught” because without my leadership training I would not have had the foundation to become a leader and I would suggest that neither would you. As I previously stated, becoming a leader is a matter of choice, but leadership training can inspire and lay the ground work for people that choose to be leaders. No, it can’t make them a leader, but it can give them the foundation to become a leader. “Leadership is a matter of personal choice.” Not everyone wants to be a leader. Respectfully, Mike Petrusek


  7. Mike: Your logic is correct, leadership classes and seminars didn’t exist when the leaders I named in my blog were alive. And that’s my point, they learned leadership by doing. My beef with leadership trainings is that most people come to listen, learn a few new ideas, but don’t take the opportunity to get engaged in situations requiring the doing of leadership. You mentioned some personal development courses, one of which I was heavily envolved in early in my career. I learned a ton about myself, you are correct, but it wasn’t till I chose to quit my Ph.D. degree and put myself in a role that required leadership skills, that I began to learn what leadership is all about. I am not against leadership classes, but it’s the next step, the engagement in a problem requiring leadership that really matters. And that is what the military education model is all about, a little learning and a lot of doing!

    Thanks for keeping the dialogue alive.


  8. Pingback: Leadership on U.S. Health and asking “HOW” for Long-Term Success « Leadership Coaching <!– Opl1Yc4VNCoNBwgQekUuOqFddJg –>

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