Can Leadership Be Learned?
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”– John F. Kennedy
Former US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, once told his son, “The one quality that can develop by studious reflection and practice is the leadership of men.” He was right. Countless studies over the years have investigated whether leaders are born or made. For the most part, history has maintained that leaders are born – and that all good leaders look, think, and act a certain way. More recent studies show that this is not the case. Leadership can be learned. Specifically, leadership skills can be developed. In this blog we’ll give you a quick overview of the research that supports this statement, as well as some tips and tricks on how you can start developing your leadership skills today.
Leadership Can Be Learned
Studies show that leadership can be learned. Dr. Taylor, professor emeritus at Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, put it this way, “Successful leadership is not a mystery, accessible only to individuals born with the charisma and power drive of Napoleon. It is within your reach.”[i] Dr. Taylor holds that leadership can be learned, although some may be naturally more inclined to the work of a leader than others. Leadership, Taylor explains, involves defining and sharing a vision. Leaders must be comfortable with the theoretical, and willing to take risks. In this way, leadership is different from management:
“The pure leader ‘lives in the middle of next year’… The pure manager lives in the here-and-now… Leadership involves communicating a vision. Management is the implementation of another’s vision. To speak metaphorically, leaders build castles in the sky for the managers to live in and run.”[ii]
Other research has agreed with Dr. Taylor. In fact, the general consensus is that leadership can be learned.[iii] While you may not be able to significantly change your personality, or your innate strengths and weaknesses, leadership skills can be developed, and anyone who is willing to put in the time and the effort can learn to become a good leader.
Learning to Lead
Now that we know leadership can be learned, the question is how does one go about learning to lead? It is certainly not as easy as reading a book or listening to a podcast. Harold S. Geneen put it well when he said, “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.” What Geneen is addressing in this statement is that leadership is more about what you do, than about what you know. Therefore, being a good leader, and learning to become a better one, means putting your leadership skills into practice. But you cannot do this on your own. In order for your practice to be effective, you will need feedback on your work and guidance for improvement. Two useful tools for getting this kind of feedback are:
Using Leadership Assessments
Leadership assessments can help you in a few ways. First, they provide an objective assessment of your strengths and development opportunities. This may help you identify skills you can capitalize on, as well as those you’d like to prioritize for growth. Assessments may also help you identify blind spots (i.e., areas where you thought you were stronger than you are), as well as hidden potential (i.e., areas where you didn’t know you had strength or potential). In this way, assessments can be useful for identifying, selecting, and developing leaders. They can also be used to measure progress along the way. 360 degree assessments are especially helpful for this, because they combine feedback from supervisors, direct reports, co-workers, and clients where applicable. This provides a wholistic assessment of leadership behaviour and can be used to gauge progress and adjust development goals as needed.
Coaching for Leadership Development
In addition to assessments, we recommend using coaching as a way to facilitate leadership development. Coaches support the development process by helping candidates reflect on assessment results, challenge their thoughts and assumptions, and set development goals. Coaches also act as accountability partners, meeting regularly with candidates to check in on their progress and ensure that they are accomplishing their goals. As a result, studies have shown that coaching makes it significantly more likely that candidates will achieve their development goals.[iv] It also increases the likelihood that this behaviour change will remain long-term.[v],[vi]
A Leadership Development Toolbox
If you’re looking for a strong assessment to help you develop your leaders, check out SIGMA’s Leadership Skills Profile – Revised (LSP-R). The LSP-R is a personality-based assessment of leadership skills that can be used to guide leadership development efforts. The test scores individuals on 50 leadership competencies including cognitive, personal, interpersonal, and senior leadership skills. Everyone who takes the LSP-R will automatically receive a Focus Report which includes a summary of scores and analysis of results, as well as templates and activities for creating a personalized development plan.
Looking for More?
If you have questions about the LSP-R, your Focus Report, or leadership assessments in general, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us! Over the last 50 years we’ve worked with more than 8,500 private and public organizations across North America. We’ve got lots of tips and tricks to share, and our consultants are always happy to chat. If you’d like some more formal coaching to go along with your assessment, check out SIGMA’s coaching and training. We’ve got lots of group and individual offerings, and we would love to support you on your leadership development journey!
Erica Sutherland, Ph.D.
SENIOR CONSULTANT & EXECUTIVE COACH
Erica completed her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational psychology at Western University. She is a Senior Consultant at SIGMA, where she delivers consulting services and Succession Planning solutions to clients. As a member of SIGMA’s executive coaching team, Erica works one-on-one with leaders to develop talent. She also brings her expertise in measurement and psychometrics to the R&D team, assisting with the development and validation of SIGMA’s many assessments.
Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.
LEADERSHIP CONSULTANT & EXECUTIVE COACH
Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.
Glen oversees SIGMA’s sales and marketing activities. As a skilled presenter and trainer, he has designed and delivered engaging and entertaining workshops and webinars to help leaders and HR professionals enhance their understanding of how our products and services can be used to realize potential within their organizations.
[i] Taylor, R.B. (2003). Leadership is a Learned Skill. Family Practice Management, 10(9), https://www.aafp.org/fpm/2003/1000/p43.html?printable=fpm.
[iii] Kerfoot, K. (1998). Management is taught, leadership is learned. Nursing Economics, 16(3), 144+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A20862190/AONE?u=anon~83f6e8f0&sid=googleScholar&xid=8258b3aa.
[iv] Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., …, & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 198-229.
[v] Baron, L., & Morin, L. (2010). The impact of executive coaching on self-efficacy related to management soft-skills. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31, 18-38.
[vi] Sonesh, S. C., Coultas, C. W., Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Benishek, L. E., & Salas, E. (2015). The power of coaching: A meta-analytic investigation. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 8, 73-95.