Leadership Can’t Be Taught . . .

This is a post from a year ago that I think is appropriate for the current times, when we are still seeking leaders to rise up and be counted. Let me know what you think!

Experience isn’t the best teacher, it’s the only teacher.  ~Albert Schweitzer

My last post, A Chance Meeting at the Airport, caused a considerable amount of comment from my dedicated readers and even others.  I am pleased to have put out a topic that we all feel so strongly about and where we can learn from each other’s ideas, experiences and points-of-view.  To me, it is times like this when a blog is really doing its job.

Basically, the discussion centres around whether or not leadership can be taught.  We are not discussing the age-old question of are leaders made or born.  I think that has been answered a long time ago: leaders are made, not born.  However, our discussion centres on just how leaders are made.

In my blog I put forth the argument that “Leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned!”

Let me elaborate further. Teaching leadership to a class of students, or even giving a seminar on leadership to executives is about as effective in developing leaders as reading a cookbook is in developing chefs.  It’s not the information, it’s the doing that develops skills, and leadership is a skill set, just as being a chef demands a skill set. Listening to an entertaining and informative lecture, or even reading one of the many books on leadership does not develop leaders, it builds a library of information.  We know more about leadership, but we don’t do more with it.  That’s the problem and why I believe that leadership can’t be taught.  They teach Ethics is law school and business school, yet we have more and more politicians and executives who don’t act ethically.

Learning and leadership are indispensable from each other.  ~John F. Kennedy

Leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned.  And learning leadership is akin to learning any other skill.  Beyond the knowledge of the subject, there must be an appetite for being a leader, and the courage to act in accordance with the principles of leadership gained from the teaching.  Too may people attend a course on leadership or an executive seminar on leadership taught by some of the best known leaders and walk out the door more informed, but not committed to being a leader.  In fact, they wind up with clever quotes and examples yet still avoid putting themselves in situations that call for real leadership.

Consider the CEOs of the “big banks” and their lack of leadership during the global financial crisis.  Since when did bailouts without internal changes become a leadership principle?  Consider the current situation of American Airlines.  Since when did declaring bankruptcy become a business leadership strategy?

Becoming a leader.

For those with the courage and commitment to being a leader, very little teaching is required.  They learn by doing; through experience, not words.  They are the ones that volunteer for all the crappy jobs inside the company.  They join the teams trying to solve the biggest problems.  They take on the assignment of cleaning up a troubled division.  They don’t go to a leadership seminar, they go to work. They learn from other leaders who have faced difficult situations and they internalize these lessons.  Do they always win? Nope.  Do they always learn something invaluable about leadership and themselves. Absolutely. Do they grow their leadership “muscles”? Definitely.

Don’t read a book or go to a seminar, let your life’s work be the book that someone else reads and the seminar others attend.

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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9 Responses to Leadership Can’t Be Taught . . .

  1. Dear John: Leadership can be taught, but as you pointed out, using what has been taught is a personal choice. I think that what you are saying is that people either choose to be or not to be a leader. Some people do not have aspirations of being leaders or when they learn how difficult is is to be a leader, they decide that it is not for them. Leadership is not easy. Life is about choices and the fact that some people, after they have been taught leadership, decide not to be leaders does not change the fact that leadership can be taught. Developing the skill set is done, of course, through experience and doing. All skill sets are internalized through the doing and the real learning is done through the doing, but that is the way everything in life works, not just leadership. I agree that leadership is a choice, but that does not change the fact that it can be taught. As far as those bankers go, I personally would say that they are not true leaders, they are just exploiters and money mongers and what they have done and are doing, in my opinion has nothing to do with leadership. After all, you need to remember that the banking industry ia a kiss ass culture and that you don’t move up in the banking industry by being a leader. You move up in the banking industry by kissing everbody’s ass. Respectfully, Mike Petrusek


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  8. Important post John. And (again) you are squarely on point.


  9. Raunak says:

    John, I’m reminded of this quote from Evan Almighty: “If one prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If they pray for courage, does God give them courage, or does he give them opportunities to be courageous?”

    I feel leaership skills are honed when people find themselves in situations that require them to display leadership. Some people seek such situations voluntarily while others need to be forced into them. While selecting candidates for top leadership positions, I would recommend seeing not just their past successes but whether those successes were in crisis situations that required leadership. I would also lookout for failures, as long as those failures too were in circumstances that had forced the candidates to be leaders.

    I think in the recent past, top leaders have been appointed solely on the basis of past successes, and not whether they have been in crisis circumstances that demanded leadership.


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