Another Way

Whenever I ask a group to close their eyes and think back to someone they worked for who was a great leader, and to remember what they admired about them; I get a very similar list. Here are the top ten items that get mentioned the most:

1) honesty 2) integrity 3) courage 4) accountability 5) vision 6) clarity 7) trustworthy 8} trusting 9) caring 10) inspirational

After the group creates this list I ask a simple question that hits the room as if a bomb was dropped on it, “How do you teach these things to aspiring leaders?”

It’s at that moment when suddenly I begin to hear things like, “Leadership can’t be taught.” “Some people are born leaders.”

If you Google “Leadership” you’ll be pointed to hundreds of thousands of sites and books that describe what great leaders do; they’ll list the “7 Habits”, the “6 Secrets” , the “10 Elements”; but none deal with how we learn the foundations of great leadership, the attributes we know are the most important, the qualities that are reflected in the listed above.

I’ve had people in my sessions say, “Yeah, those things (honesty, integrity, courage, accountability, clarity, vision, trustworthy, trusting, inspirational, etc.) are important…but teach me something “practical” and “concrete”.

What could be more practical and concrete than learning these foundational elements of leadership?

Yet most people choose to ignore them and put their focus on the “tips and techniques” approach to leadership. There are no shortcuts to effective leadership. It is a journey. Those that think they can become leaders and not embody courage, honesty, inspiration, vision, accountability, trust, etc.; are doomed to pretending to be leaders, playing a role rather than truly embodying what makes leaders great.

It’s not surprising that educators who are students of leadership gravitate to “tips and techniques” and in doing so pass over the elements they, themselves, list as the key components of leadership. The “tips and techniques” approach is cognitive “mind work”; the paradigm of learning that is most comfortable and the least threatening for educators. We can learn “tips and techniques” while sitting in a class taking notes. They can be memorized. Anything outside the cognitive domain is not considered “concrete or practical” no matter how concrete or practical it may be.

There is a another way.

So what are we to make of this? Is leadership an accident of birth or can it be learned?



12 thoughts on “Another Way

  1. Those 10 things you mentioned come from a moral belief of what a good leader/person should be. Maybe the difference between okay leaders and good/great leaders is the practicing piece. You can say you believe in something, but until you “practice what you preach,” people won’t follow you. The same concept is true for teachers; it’s the core belief and whether your actions support that. Anyone who holds that those 10 things are important and practices it, will be a naturally good leader, regardless if they are “taught” or not. I’ve worked for great leaders who were outspoken, quiet, funny, and stoic. The constant quality, regardless of approach, was the core belief system you alluded to. The only way that can be taught is by your parents.

  2. Angie,
    I agree about practice being a core component of leadership but I disagree that the 10 qualities can only be taught is by your parents.

    I’ve been helped to embody some of these elements by dedicated leadership teachers who supported me as I learned, asked me core questions that helped me find my own answers, helped develop and monitor my practices, and finally shared with me their own experiences on the path in order to light my way when I was lost.

    I now work with educators to help them develop these qualities…


  3. I think you can help others develop the qualities in how to manifest them, but can you really teach someone honesty if it’s not one of his/her core values to begin with?

  4. Angie,
    You’re correct. If a person does not value something (honesty, as an example) they will probably not be interested in learning about.

    I am focusing on the people who want to be better leaders and who understand that (honesty, inspiration, courage, trust, etc. ) are the elements of leadership they need to embody more effectively.

    There is little work being done in mainstream leadership development on how you teach or learn these traits for folks who want to embody them at a high level.

    For me, introducing the concept that you can learn these things and that they can be taught, is an important conversation.


  5. Well, then we agree. I do think some leaders need to be taught how to cultivate these traits and manifest them. Some can easily accomplish that task with one or more traits, but doing it with all traits can be difficult. For me personally, it’s effectively communicating vision, clarity, and inspiration. But I am learning how to do these things by observing great leaders who do them well.

  6. Angie,
    I’m asking what you do to develop the specific traits you want to improve. For instance, if you want to improve your ability to inspire others, what practices do you have, that over time, will help you embody that trait?

  7. Well, I’ve just recently spent the time being honest with myself in what I am lacking. I’m focusing my professional reading on those traits and studying the techniques of administrators who demonstrate those qualities. Luckily, I have a mentor who is great about helping me figure these things out.

  8. Angie,
    Thanks for being so willing to engage in the conversation.

    I invite you to consider a new approach to learning to embody the traits you say you are lacking. It is difficult to learn them by watching others or by figuring them out.

    If you wanted to learn to play the violin watching master violinists and trying to figure out what they are doing is only part of the journey. (a small part). The path that I am suggesting is to find a teacher and begin to practice.

    There are many different practices to develop these traits; some are general practices that apply to everyone and others are practices that are very unique to your specific situation.

    A teacher helps reflect back to you what others see when they look at you (sometimes we can’t see it ourselves); and helps support you as you go through the uncomfortable moments of practicing things that feel so hard to do when you are first learning.

    Angie, you’re willingness to engage in this dialogue is outstanding. Oftentimes in blog comments people “hit and run” and the conversation never gets started.

    in appreciation,

  9. I’ll take your suggestion. I’ll find someone I’m comfortable with in being so “exposed.” Thanks for challenging me to think beyond my initial reply. I enjoy your blog and will continue to visit.

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