Three ways you learn leadership

by Michael Haberman on September 5, 2012 · 3 comments


In a blog post published on August 28, 2012 Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri told a story about a management class he was teaching in which one of the students asked the question “What makes you think you can teach us to lead?” Petriglieri answers the question in his post called Who Can Teach Leadership? But what if you are not teaching leadership? What if you want to learn it? In this post I give you three ideas on how you can learn leadership.

Learn to lead by actually leading

The Professor’s tale was actually a made up story but he wonders when and where he may actually get that question. He has researched leadership, written about leadership, coached many leaders but he has never owned, started or managed a business. In answering the hypothetical question he posed he says there are a couple of assumptions that must be addressed. The first of these is that leadership implies you are occupying a senior management position. Nothing could be further from the truth. First not all people in senior management positions are “leaders”. Not all leaders occupy senior management positions and may never hold such a position. I remember a Tom Peters presentation (although I am sorry to say I cannot remember the reference) where he talked about very effective leaders working on temporary teams. They were very good at leadership, as he defined it, but once the project or event was over they went back to their “day” job which did not involve any leadership at all. Many of us are presented opportunities to lead, be it at work, in our community, in our church, or in our social life. It is often a matter of volunteering to step up and take the opportunity regardless of our actual experience. You get the experience by performing the role.

Learn to lead by following

We often learn leadership by being a follower. We see what our “leaders” do or do not do and how well they do it. We see how people react to those leaders and we know our own reactions. We can pick up those lessons and model the good behaviors and avoid the bad ones. Just make sure you are filtering what you see and hear through your own experience. Strict emulation of someone else is not the key to successful leadership. You have to develop your own “voice”, if you will, in order to be a genuine leader.

Learn by taking classes

Some leadership gurus don’t really think leadership can be taught. They are of the mindset that leaders are born with a set of traits that are developed and come forth to make someone a leader. Having been educated in the behaviorist school of thought I don’t believe leaders are born any more than I believe someone is born to be a baseball player or race car driver. I do recognize that there are people who have genetic programing to be able to jump higher, run faster, or they have longer fingers that make playing the piano easier. In the same vein some people are just smarter than others and that may predispose them to leadership. But all of those built-in advantages still have to be developed and that is why you train. Star baseball players are stars because they have spent thousands of hours training to develop those attributes of hand-eye coordination and quick reactions. In the same way you can develop your leadership ability by taking classes.

Professor Petriglieri found that one of the biggest lessons learned by people in classes was from the experiences of peers in the class rather than from the book learning. However, a good teacher can help you by challenging you and helping draw out the lessons learned from your personal experience. The Professor thinks that these lessons are best learned if you trust the person at the front of the class. He says:

Will your course, your teachers, your classmates, help you approach, examine and draw meaningful lessons from your experience past and present? Will they take your experience seriously without taking your conclusions literally? Will they challenge you to take a second look at things you usually take for granted, or rush over? Will they provoke you to articulate, broaden or revise the views you have of yourself, leading, and the world? Will you be open and committed to that work? These are the questions you should ask anytime you’re enlisting someone to help you become a better leader.

So consider these if you have an opportunity to attend a class, but also consider these questions anytime someone is trying to teach you leadership, inside and out of a formal situation.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon September 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

International assignments can help develop leadership skills. Check out my blog for more information on what expat life (and business) is like. (http://theartoftheexpat.blogspot.com/2012/09/globalhub-september-expat-trends-how.html).

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Michael Haberman September 6, 2012 at 9:56 am

An excellent observation Sharon. In fact I have even thought of doing a blog post on that. I should have mentioned this way, thank you for doing so.

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