Can you teach leadership?

Jon Windust

This is the wrong question. It should be “what is the most effective way to learn leadership?”.

I advocate an apprenticeship-like approach which I introduced briefly in the article Disrupting Human Resources. I’ve been interested to read about an increasing emphasis that apprenticeships in general will take in the US in a similar way that they currently do in Europe. While they aren’t talking about apprenticeships for leaders, I believe organisations should be setting up apprenticeship-like processes that take aspiring leaders through a multi-year learning journey as they progress from team leads to senior leaders.

Why? Apprenticeships exist because some skills are difficult to master without repeated application in a real-world setting. Some knowledge can also be difficult to codify, which means that the only way they can be taught is by the learner experiencing something with the assistance of a more skilled guide. These situations describe leadership precisely. Human beings aren’t logic machines, we have emotions and social rules. Thinking that leadership can be taught is a mistake. You can provide a framework, but then a person needs to experience it, over and over with guidance from an experienced person. This builds the tacit knowledge needed to become a great leader.

Can you teach leadership?

Let me give you an example. Autonomy is great right? But what do you do if you’ve provided autonomy and your team isn’t getting results or even putting in much effort? I’ve seen inexperienced leaders in these situations. They do the best they can, but when you’re confronted with something that doesn’t work as it is described in theory, a person’s belief in leadership method can crumble. The natural reaction is to take either the passive route and put your head in the sand or use the aggressive option and demand action. Neither of these resolve the problem. What’s needed in these circumstances is for a more experienced leader to coach the less inexperienced leader. Through exploring what they’ve done, haven’t done and what foundations were put in place they will come to an answer. Any answer is just an initial answer. Solving this sort of situation takes time and many adjustments.

Human beings aren’t logic machines, we have emotions and social rules.

My view of the leadership apprenticeship is mixed mode learning. That is formal training and learning materials to provide a leadership framework on top of which experience is added. Experience is first gained by shadowing leaders, then short duration projects in which they take responsibility and lead a group of people. Managing freelancers on a project is an ideal opportunity to start learning how to set clear expectations, provide feedback and keep things on course.

Next is a team lead role. Why? Because this role is characterised by the person still doing some of the work directly. They lead by example and work with the team. This phase helps a person to start making the transition from achieving things individually to achieving things by leading a group of people to collectively do them. The team lead role can be challenging for highly skilled and talented people who have internalised standards for how things should be done and to what quality. Working with a more experienced guide during this phase can help a person recognise how they need to change their thinking and approach. Without this, a new leader is at risk of making damaging mistakes such as micromanagement.

As a person progresses into more senior leadership roles they completely transition from directly doing end work activities to leading others to do end work activities. New and more advanced skills are needed in this phase that focus on strategy execution. Any apprenticeship should continue through to senior roles to help a person recognise and adapt to the more strategic and less hands-on nature of their role. While some will thrive and love the changing nature of the role, it should be recognised that some will not enjoy the less hands on nature of it. A guide can help a person recognise this and avoid career damaging moves.

For more insight on leadership skills see my article on the five keys to leadership you need to know.