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Can Leadership Really Be Learned?

Published on 6/19/17Bookmark and Share

Take Off The Rose-Colored Glasses

We don’t have to look far to see examples of ineffective and misguided leadership. Organizations and individuals spend billions of dollars in the U.S. each year on the hope that people can become better leaders. Oftentimes it is just that – hope. But can leadership really be developed?

The short answer is yes, in certain circumstances.

What justification do we have for saying this? Some of the best evidence comes from social scientific experiments done in real organizations – where leaders were randomly assigned to either a control or an experimental leadership training group, in a fashion similar to the way that a new experimental drug gets tested. In one study in the Israeli military, the measured effects cascaded down two organizational levels such that leaders who received the well-designed leadership training program better developed their direct-reports (a critical leadership competency), who in turn had direct-reports who performed at a higher level. In another study, bank branch managers who received a validated leadership training ended up with better branch financial metrics than the bank branch managers from the control group.

Other evidence comes closer to home in our executive leadership development programs. We guide program participants to help them learn new leadership behaviors and skills, and we see them approach situations differently as a result of intensive learning and interaction with other participants. Frequently, we hear from some of them after the program with comments like “Some people in my company didn’t know I went to a leadership development program, but remarked to me that I was really turning up my leadership over the last few months,” or “I started doing one or two things differently, and it made all the difference; I noticed that my team is performing at a higher level and working better together.” It is these kinds of tangible wins that motivate us to impact as many people as we can: aspiring leaders, new and mid-level leaders, and seasoned effective senior executives.

Yet sometimes leadership development doesn’t work, or may even horribly fail. There can be a number of reasons why. Some individuals aren’t open to change, learning, and development. Another reason for failure is a misguided focus on aspects or parts of leadership that are very difficult to develop. Some critical leadership skills and competencies are amenable to learning or focused development – others are not. On the one hand, take, for example, integrity. While being seen as having integrity is an important piece of being a truly effective (and respected) leader, it is a very difficult journey to develop this, and organizations would be much better off trying to select people who already have it as opposed to trying to develop it. On the other hand, leadership vision, believe it or not, IS a developable skill – and there is good evidence to back up this assertion. Picking the right skills on which to focus development is essential.

Another reason leadership development might fail is that we naively expect a miraculous transformation. One helpful way to think about leadership development is this – each of us have a fairly broad range of leadership potential – and the goal should be to move up to the high end of that range as much as possible. It is impossible to move someone from 0 to 100. Some people may just never be dynamic and effective leaders, or may require a much longer journey to get there. But individuals can certainly move the needle on a specific competency from 45 to 60 for example, or from 74 to 82. And, as shown by several decades of research, even small improvements in leadership may have huge effects on individuals, teams, and entire organizations.

Leadership development is not easy work, but with a proper focus on continuous modest improvements and on skills and behaviors which have been proven to be developable, we can create more effective leaders for a better world. The era of thinking blindly that “you’re either a good natural leader or you’re not” is facile and not supported by research evidence. It’s time to bury such simplistic views in favor of an approach that seeks to carefully develop specific skills and competencies, transforming leaders in small increments but with often huge payoff.