Can leadership be learned?


While you can’t simply copy down notes on how to practice leadership, these skills can be developed. Reflecting on how you define and approach problems is a good place to start.

Can you teach leadership? Well, sort of.

Despite what some believe, leaders are not merely born — the necessary skills can be learned. Yet it’s not the sort of thing you can copy down from a textbook and memorise.

That’s because leadership is contextual and difficult. Indeed, if you take the definition posited by Harvard’s Ron Heifetz, it is difficult by definition, because it broaches problems that haven’t yet been solved.

You don’t have to be Winston Churchill to be an effective leader in your own domain, just as you don’t have to be an Olympian to be able to be a decent weekend sportsperson. In fact, the ups and downs of Churchill’s own career — he made some terrible decisions as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then spent a decade without holding political office before becoming the feted wartime PM remembered today — show just how contingent the idea of successful leadership can be.

The surgeon and the psychiatrist

What is leadership? Heifetz — who knows a thing or two about the subject, having lectured on it at the Harvard Kennedy School for more than 30 years — distinguishes between using authority to apply known answers to problems — the realm of technical knowledge, or management — and the creative work of finding new answers for emerging issues, or what he calls adaptive leadership.

One of the classic mistakes bosses make is to think that leadership is primarily about applying technical solutions, says Heifetz — and they’re not the only ones. Often the people they’re serving think that’s how it works, too — many would understandably ask what the point in electing or hiring leaders is if they don’t know how to fix our problems.

“It’s about leaving people with more capacity than they had when you showed up … your job is not to keep them dependent, your job is to demystify and distribute and develop collective capacity.”

Adaptive leadership is hard because it can involve a (considered) leap into the unknown — making decisions before high quality information is known, for example. Often it means pushing tough changes, convincing people of the need for reform that might be difficult for them personally.

Heifetz illustrates this dilemma with an example from his original profession, medicine. A technically proficient surgeon is able to operate on the ill patient, curing them of whatever problem they’re suffering with. But it’s a different — and arguably harder — job to convince that patient give up smoking, eat healthily and exercise more — changes that will significantly decrease their chances of becoming sick again. Only around 20% of patients end up permanently changing their lifestyle habits after receiving ‘the talk’ from their doctor, he notes.

Or compare the surgeon to the psychiatrist, Heifetz says. Whereas the surgeon fixes the problem for you, with a psychiatrist, the relationship is more like: “how can I help you learn how to solve your problem? Because I can’t solve your problem for you. Your problem actually is in you, and the solution is in you.”

Of course, in government there are any number of reforms that involve citizens needing to change their behaviour for the great good. Paying taxes means less disposable income for those who pay them, but more money for services. Reducing tariffs makes consumer goods cheaper while exposing local businesses to competition. Failure to convince that group — or at least the broader public — of the need to make sacrifices can jeopardise the chance your reforms will stand.

Technical nous can tell you what the impact of any decision might be, but it can never be a substitute for deciding what the right — or sustainable — choice is.

And leadership isn’t just about nation-building. Even within an individual organisation, taking staff with you through major change, such as cost-cutting or restructuring, can be the difference between a happy, productive workforce and the challenges that come with demoralisation and high turnover.

For the head of an organisation or even a unit, leadership means helping staff reach their own potential. “Leadership is about generating capacity, not just dependency,” Heifetz suggests.

“It’s about leaving people with more capacity than they had when you showed up. And it may be that for a period of time they may need to be dependent on you, because you are bringing extraordinary gifts. But over time your job is not to keep them dependent, your job is to demystify and distribute and develop collective capacity.”


Making a leader

So what makes a good leader?

Self-reflection is important. Good leaders take a few minutes each day to review whether their activities are contributing towards their goals, believes Kellogg School of Management Clinical Professor of Strategy Harry Kraemer — simply working harder runs up against natural limits fairly quickly, so a good leader is someone who is strategic with their effort.

There are arguments about how effective different personality types are at leading organisations — research by business consultant and academic Jim Collins suggests companies that consistently outperform their rivals are led by individuals with an unusual combination of personal humility and intense professional will. Leaders who underrate their own ability tend to be rated more highly by their direct reports, and vice versa, according to another study.

Brain scans on volunteers at the US military’s West Point Academy showed that areas of the brain associated with self-regulation, decision-making and memory were more developed in those with more complex and differentiated leadership skills.

“In most settings leadership is going to require the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, confusion, conflict and even disorientation.”

But Heifetz believes leadership is not so much a trait as a practice.

That may sound trite, but the point is that leadership is about tackling problems that are hard to fix and can be hard to even define, so it has to be contextual. When people ask what makes a good leader, Heifetz says he never starts with specific personality types.

“I always start with the work to be done. What’s the challenge a community is facing? … From that I begin to ask, what’s needed? What kind of leadership would be needed to mobilise progress on that work? And then only third can you begin to answer the question, what kind of particular characteristics, skills, habits, values, default settings would you want to change in a particular person to prepare for leadership to meet that situation?”

You could argue assertive personalities make good leaders, he says, but in some cultural contexts they’ll end up being like “a bull in a china shop”. Gentler types are good at getting things done in some circumstances, but will be overridden in others. Effective leaders are able to practice “contextual, analytical intelligence”.

“They can read different situations differently, so they can interrogate and learn from their own experience but apply it differently in different contexts,” Heifetz argues.

This is also why his classes focus on experiential learning, such as by creating situations where students need to practice leadership in the classroom, which are then analysed. He also gets students to discuss personal examples of professional failure, helping them consider where their own behaviour may have contributed to the problem. It’s an approach that seems to work well — his class on ‘exercising leadership’ was given the Kennedy School’s ‘most influential course’ award, based on alumni feedback, every year it ran (which was perhaps the reason the award was discontinued after six years).

Although the types of people drawn to lead have a desire to see problems fixed, they also tend to have a strong desire to be the one doing the fixing. But it’s not all about you: it’s important leaders “begin analysing the situation from the context in, rather than from their own self out,” he notes.

A key way of developing your capacity is improving your patience “for staying on the diagnostic side before jumping to solutions.” A common failure is that “people jump to solutions without having gotten the problem right,” asserts Heifetz. The desire to act can override the preliminary work of asking “do we really have a grip on the problem?”

“A leader, from above or below, with or without authority, has to engage people in confronting the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and learning new habits.”

But although personality is not the defining feature, there are some personal characteristics that will make it difficult to practice effective leadership.

“You can’t take somebody who has no stomach at all for ambiguity, no stomach at all for conflict, and has a very low tolerance for confusion, and say leadership is your professional mindset, because in most settings leadership is going to require the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, confusion, conflict and even disorientation, and stay in the game and not get overly anxious or frightened,” he says.

Thankfully, most people lie somewhere in the middle and, with self-reflection and practice, are able to learn about their own instincts and adapt. Working with others who have more capacity than you in certain areas, who can complement your weaknesses, is an important part of this adaptation process.

Principles for practising adaptive leadership

Notwithstanding the difficulty of reducing the idea of leadership to a few dot points, Heifetz suggests six principles for leading adaptive work.

1. ‘Getting on the balcony’. Staying on track means not just observing the game as one of the players, but being able to see the state of play from above — so consider how things look from a range of perspectives and don’t get bogged down in minutiae.

2. Identifying the adaptive challenge. What are the big problems your organisation faces? Would expert advice and technical adjustments within the basic routines suffice, or will people throughout the company have to learn new ways of doing business, develop new competencies, and begin to work collectively?

3. Regulating distress. Adaptive change is stressful for the people going through it. Protecting staff from change will not help — leaders need to stimulate people to adapt to changing circumstances, discouraging expectations that executives will take the problem off their shoulders.

4. Maintaining disciplined attention. Humans are good at finding ways to distract from the unpleasant, which can be a big problem when faced with the need for adaptive change. A good leader will be able to get people to face up to adjustments they are avoiding and draw out conflicts in a productive way.

5. Giving work back to people. Everyone gains special information from their own vantage point, so over-reliance on hierarchy can mean decisions are not being informed by those with domain expertise. Staff at the coal face often spot changes occurring long before their superiors; treating them as mere worker bees can undermine the organisation’s overall performance.

“Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy,” says Heifetz. “Not only are many lower-level employees comfortable being told what to do, but many managers are accustomed to treating subordinates like machinery requiring control. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control. Workers, for their part, need to take responsibility.”

6. Protecting voices of leadership from below. Whistleblowers and other deviants tend to end up being crushed in large organisations, despite their potential for highlighting major problems that need fixing. Be careful not to reject such input because of the timing or tone with which it is delivered — such protagonists are often frustrated or nervous and so are not as polished as you might like. Keep an open mind — criticism of your pet project doesn’t mean criticism of you.

Maintaining reflexivity is one of the key characteristics of adaptive leadership. This requires observing events and patterns without forming judgements or making assumptions about the data’s meaning, then tentatively interpreting observations by developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on, and designing interventions based on your observations and interpretations in the service of making progress on the adaptive challenge.

Not only can leadership can be learned, but leadership in some ways is learning — at least as far as Heifetz’s definition of the term is concerned.

“Leadership, as seen in this light, requires a learning strategy. A leader, from above or below, with or without authority, has to engage people in confronting the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and learning new habits,” Heifetz argues.

“To an authoritative person who prides himself on his ability to tackle hard problems, this shift may come as a rude awakening. But it also should ease the burden of having to know all the answers and bear all the load. To the person who waits to receive either the coach’s call or “the vision” to lead, this change may also seem a mixture of good news and bad news.

“The adaptive demands of our time require leaders who take responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One can lead with no more than a question in hand.”