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Learning to Lead


If you’ve ever spent time in a training room, you’ll have heard a trainer use the phrase “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”I know it’s supposed to be supportive and encouraging but now and again I like to take it as a challenge and see if I can’t find some really stupid questions to ask. You know the sort – the kind of questions that five year olds ask and which parents find so difficult to answer: things like “why is the sky blue?” or “where does the sun go at night” or “is it actually possible to teach someone to be a leader?”

Many years ago, people who thought about this type of thing believed that leaders were born, not made. Leadership was a quality you were born with and the idea was known as the “great man” theory. The difficulty with this theory (leaving aside the obvious sexism) is that, followed to its natural conclusion, if you were born with this leadership quality you’d be a leader even if you never got out of bed. That led to a second series of ideas (known as behavioural theories) that involved what leaders actually did. Of course, anyone who’s been a leader knows that what you do usually depends on the circumstances, which led to a whole new set of ideas, known as contingency (or, “it depends”) theories.

Since the 1990s, leadership theory has fractured into a host of different schools: exchange and path led; charismatic and visionary; transformational; post-transformational, distributed and on and on. However, after people moved away from the “great man” theories, the idea that leadership could actually be taught was never much questioned: leadership was reduced to a series of tasks or activities, leading to the belief that leadership itself could be taught. But what if it can’t?

This is obviously a question that people in my position don’t really like to ask very often – after all, pretty much everything we do is predicated on the belief that it can. But I suspect that there is actually very little – including leadership – that can be taught.Instead, these things have to be learned.

That’s not just semantics. All learning involves change and psychologists say that in order to change, we need three things:

  • understanding (knowing and appreciating the need to change);
  • motivation (the desire to change);
  • resources (the tools or environment to help them change).

As a trainer, I can only provide some of the resources and perhaps help with some of the understanding. The rest has to come from the individual. I was struck by this as I read a very interesting essay on leadership by Elena Antonacopoulou and Regina Bento; their assertion is that the most important thing leaders can learn isnot how to create a vision, or to communicate or how to build trust. Instead, the best thing that leaders can learn to do is learn. I think they’re onto something.

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