The team at Edgecumbe has held a mini debate. We took the whole team and split into two groups (for and against) to debate a tough question. Each group had ten minutes to think of three points for their argument and report back. Here’s a brief rundown of the arguments; see what you think…
Group 1: No, leadership cannot be taught (but…)
Leadership effectiveness is significantly affected by context and situation.
Our research shows that it’s very unusual for any individual leader to be highly effective in all aspects of leadership. This is because the context leaders are in matter a lot when it comes to how effective they are seen to be – it would be impossible to teach a leader about every possible challenge, situation or organisational culture they might face and every style of behaviour they might need to display in order to be effective.
Leadership style is personality-driven – who you are affects how you lead.
Who you are as a leader reflects who you are as a person and we know that our personalities are formed by both nature and nurture. A leader may be naturally very fluid and disorganized rather than structured and methodical and they may have been like that from a very early age, suggesting this is a deeply ingrained part of their personality. That leader could spend their whole career focusing their development time and money on ways to help them to be more organised, e.g. project management courses, but the inconvenient truth is that they’re probably never going to get a gold medal in project management! The most rounded and sustainable method of ensuring leadership effectiveness is for organisations to build teams of leaders made up of individuals who have different styles and strengths, who can work together to overcome challenges.
You can’t teach those unwilling to learn.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink! Elements of leadership can be learned but only if learners are willing. You can teach best practice but unless learners take their training and use it in real-life scenarios, they won’t develop.
Group 2: Yes, leadership can be taught (or rather, it can be learned…)
Leadership can be taught but it requires practical, experiential learning.
Leadership development requires reflection and practice. An understanding of theoretical frameworks is useful and give guidance for tough situations, but simply knowing the theory won’t make you a better leader, being able to practice and learn from experience is key. Therefore leaders and organisations need to think about the 70:20:10 rule where leadership development (and any development) is achieved via 70% learning on the job or ‘experiential learning’, 20% by social/collaborative learning like coaching, mentoring or peer-to-peer learning, and 10% by formal teaching.
Formal leadership education has its place and importance in developing leaders thinking.
Leadership qualifications are very popular. Businesses send leaders on external residential programmes to stretch and challenge their thinking, gain new and external perspectives, build wider networks and also to build their confidence, and recognise that it takes more than personality to be a good leader. Rather than ‘picking it up’, qualifications give leaders frameworks to work with and allow leaders to understand themselves better, so they can ultimately lead better.
It’s about nature AND nurture.
The nature vs nurture argument often crops up in a discussion among business psychologists, there has been much research on this topic and broadly speaking results tend to suggest that the influence on our personality is about 50% nature and 50% nurture. These proportions change according to which personality trait we’re talking about, but broadly speaking our personalities are half born and half made. Therefore, if traits can change through our experience and learning even in later life, then learning to lead more effectively even if that means behaving in ways that are less natural to you is possible.
The consensus seemed to be that leadership cannot be fully taught in the traditional sense but it can be developed and learned. Practical, experiential learning and reflection is important as you cannot prepare for every possible scenario and every kind of person you will lead. Leadership is a set of skills and behaviours, it’s helpful to gain an understanding of some elements and also to have your thinking stretched and challenged regularly, as well lots of practice and experience.
If you have a burning question that you’d like us to debate, get in touch on our Twitter or LinkedIn page and let us know. Or, for more information on how to develop your leaders/leadership teams, check out our leadership development page.