Sunday, October 18, 2020

Can Leadership Be Taught?

 


I was recently asked to review a draft curriculum for a leadership certificate program. I had been invited to provide feedback on the educational soundness of the proposal and to help the authors make any adjustments an accreditor would be likely to demand. I was happy to help, but the exercise prompted the question, “Can leadership be taught?”

 

As a college professor, I conducted choirs and orchestras. I completed a graduate program in conducting, and I have taught conducting off and on for decades, so one might expect the answer would be a resounding yes, but it’s not that simple.

 

We can teach technique (how to do the work), analysis (how does the project or organization function), strategy (how can we achieve our goals), and tradition (what is the context and why). These apply on the podium, in a boardroom, in government, in the military, or in response to a crisis.

 

Technique, analysis, strategy, and tradition are critical, learnable skills to managerial leadership, but they do not provide vision or the charisma to inspire.

 

Many years ago, I attended a number of concerts led by a technically brilliant conductor. Each performance was as close to perfect as I could imagine and incredibly boring. It was like the best exhibit in a wax museum. Every detail was perfect, and yet it was cold and soulless—artifice without compassion.

 

In an interview filmed decades ago, Werner Thärichen, long-serving timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, told about a rehearsal led by a young guest conductor. The conductor stopped in the middle of the rehearsal and asked, “What just happened, why did you suddenly sound so much better?”

 

The principal violinist pointed to the back of the auditorium. The orchestra’s music director, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had entered the hall. Thärichen’s explanation was that the Furtwängler carried the sound within himself. A more plausible explanation is that the orchestra wouldn’t let their maestro hear them at anything but their best. That is no less magical than carrying the sound within. It is the power to inspire.

 

What is it about great leaders that inspires the people they serve to do their best, to exceed what they believe they can do? It is a gift, a talent, but it can be observed and cultivated. Truly great leaders possess humility, they have a vision, and they are deeply compassionate. Their ability to inspire others is by sharing a vision in which those who follow them can see themselves and can recognize that they are a valued part of the enterprise.

 

This was the gift of Elizabeth I, Washington, Lincoln, Garibaldi, FDR, Churchill, and Mother Theresa. Each inspired throngs of followers to overcome daunting challenges by articulating a vision in which the group was stronger than its parts and recognizing in that vision that each member mattered. This is inclusive leadership

 

Throughout human history, exclusionary leadership has always eventually led to failure. Leading to get what you want is selfish. Leading to provide others with what they need is inclusive. That’s a vision that can be learned, and that will inspire. It is what we should expect of our leaders, and it is what we should expect of ourselves when given the opportunity to serve others in a leadership role.

 

 

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Can Leadership Be Taught?