Odds are, you do not regard yourself as a born leader — and you are not alone. So great a person as Gandhi was not a born leader, either. There was no hint in his early life that he was destined for greatness. As a young attorney, he was unassuming and shy. He lived rather quietly as a second-class citizen of the British Empire. But several confrontations with authorities were too unjust to ignore. And when he awakened to the injustice visited not just on himself but also on his people, he unleashed an improbable movement of national liberation that involved hundreds of millions of human beings. Step by step, he grew into the role that made him one of the greatest liberators in history.
We may not have the heroic mission of a Gandhi, but we surely sense opportunities to improve the estate of others. Most people emerge from apprentice-leadership to leadership as a result of challenges that come their way. Learning by trial and error, they perfect their leadership through experience and by reflection on experience — their own (if they are smart) and that of others (if they are wise).
Most people come to realize that leadership is less a science than an art, an art whose rules are hardly set in stone. As Warren Bennis quipped, “I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation.”
Can conducting and improvisation be taught? In some sense, yes. Schools and colleges play a critical role in developing the leadership capacities of the rising generation. In the first place, formal education should help young people prepare for a life of civic engagement and meaningful work. As students learn self-consciously to shape their lives, professions, and communities, they are in fact developing their leadership capacities.
Students should ideally have three different kinds of experiences that enlarge their preparation for leadership:
1. A liberal education provides an outstanding foundation for life-long leadership. A liberal education prepares students’ minds to lead and to reflect thoughtfully about the way they and others lead. Courses in the social sciences — economics, political science, sociology — teach us to understand predictable patterns of behavior in large populations. Courses in the humanities teach us to be alive to the idiosyncratic, the unpredictable, and the unique in individuals and in events. When students read deeply in the humanities — when they read history, biography, and fiction — they learn the stories of ethical, effective leaders, as well as the stories of ineffective, unethical people. In addition, formal exposure to psychology deepens the capacity to understand and empathize with others, while the study of ethics sharpens the ability to sort out right and wrong. Every academic major provides examples of leaders who have shaped that field of study as well as the broader community.
2. Guided apprenticeships and internships provide students with the opportunity to be mentored, thus helping them learn how to be skilled followers and good team players, ever alert to taking the initiative.
3. If students are fortunate enough to take a course devoted to the formal study of leadership, by the end of that class they should (1) be able to identify the key traits of leadership and cite example of people who demonstrate these traits in action, (2) be familiar with leadership theories, and (3) have the opportunity to develop concrete leadership skills. Breaking these three things out, students should be able to:
– recognize good role models of ethical, effective leadership, and antimodels of unethical and/or ineffective attempts to lead (HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES);
– demonstrate understanding of different leadership theories, styles, and traits, showing their application to the three great sectors in which we spend our public life — business, government, and non-profit (THEORY);
– be good listeners who can identify, understand, and value diverse viewpoints (PRACTICE);
– demonstrate the ability to prioritize, assess, decide, organize, and delegate by effectively leading a team through a historic case study or imagined scenario (PRACTICE);
– critically reflect on the process of leading (in light of the above goal), and understand the difference between managing or administering the status quo as opposed to leading change and innovation (THEORY).
– critically reflect on any ethical conundrums that arise when faced with the 51-49 decisions, and become familiar with a method for dealing with such conundrums (THEORY).
So the question is not, can you learn to lead? It is will you learn to lead? There are no excuses. Be the person you know you should be.
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