It is easy to recognize leadership in military situations: A skilled commander is able—with the help of others—to define the mission, size up the situation, identify the best of the alternative actions and engage forces effectively. The same is true for a seasoned physician leading a surgical team in a life-or-death procedure.
It also is true for a corporate leader dealing with the demands of the market. Highly effective leaders consider what the mission should be and why. They detect cues from the sea of signals around them—cues that are most important to that mission. They accurately interpret the implications of those signals, and then rapidly and effectively engage themselves and others in constructive actions to attain their goals. One’s ability to learn and act in this way is the single most accurate predictor of leadership success.
At the Spring 2005 CLO Symposium, I facilitated a discussion in which 50 seasoned learning professionals explored the question, “Can leadership be taught?” The group was skeptical that leadership as described above can be taught, but felt virtually certain that it can be learned. No one comes into the world knowing how to turn a business around. It is not an innate skill to convince a mob of hostile gang members to lay down their weapons and negotiate a peaceful settlement. But some people learn to do these things more effectively than others. How do we account for these differences, and what can we do to help people acquire leadership skills?
The discussion began with a reaffirmation of the three ways leaders learn: from experiences, from mentoring and coaching relationships, and from knowledge-building activities, such as reading or classes. Historically, most of the emphasis has been placed on the structured learning activity because that is what we think we are paid to do. While we all believe that courses can be helpful, no one in the group could provide empirical evidence that structured learning activities alone definitively improve leadership capabilities. This is at the heart of the skepticism about our ability to teach leadership.
On the other hand, the group was fairly enthusiastic about the impact of experience and the efficacy of powerful mentoring. But there was some reservation about the way we approach coaching. Most coaching is aimed at correcting behavioral defects. This information may be necessary, but is insufficient to help leaders and their team members significantly improve sustained business results and enjoy the sense of fulfillment that comes from doing so.
What emerged from the discussion was more like a soup recipe: several ingredients that must be blended in the right way to achieve the desired result. In deference to the Hippocratic Oath, we agreed that first we must do no harm. One of the most important things that we should do is stay out of the way of natural learning. Second, we agreed that each organization needs to determine its own recipe for leadership success. While a great deal of time and money is wasted reinventing lists of “leadership competencies” that mostly end up looking alarmingly similar, it is worthwhile to look at research and the organization’s experience to describe what leadership for the future looks like at various levels. Clear and concise language should be used consistently in discussions about talent, selection, succession, performance appraisals, etc.
We agreed that no amount of development will ever make up for poor placement of a person in a position. Development efforts are much more likely to succeed if the hiring and succession activities are done thoughtfully with accurate and relevant information about the person and the position. The performance management and reward system must support the desired outcome. The three ways that leaders learn will be thwarted unless we provide an environment that encourages and rewards leadership clearly and consistently.
One CLO complained, “Now I am worse off than when we started. This is big and tough!” That’s true, but no one said it would be easy. This is an opportunity to think about what should be happening with this leadership development thing, to see what is really going on, to determine what it all means and to identify ways to engage others in making it better. Hey, isn’t that what leadership is all about?
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company, and has held numerous international leadership roles with IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at email@example.com.