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Can Leadership be taught?

There are thousands of ways to learn about Leadership online which range from webinars to structured courses. During the pandemic, more books were published as well as blogs like this one helping people gain understanding of how leaders deal with difficult situations. The dilemma is whether these learning methods and information are helpful for interested parties.

This blog will answer the question and will begin by laying out the possible ways one can learn and apply a leadership trait. Regardless of the trait, whether it is to influence, negotiate, command attention, manage change, or other, there are two types of learning that occur: theoretical or practical.

Articles, blogs, and books make up the theoretical piece of the puzzle. They depict concepts based on the understanding by experts who have either lived it, witnessed it, or researched it. If a person reading a theoretical approach to a leadership trait can assimilate the content and then apply the method to their own situation, the theory is said to help the person gain experience in a trait used by a leader.

When the theory cannot be directly applied in the workplace, a person will turn to learning the theory and its application otherwise. They can select from a panoply of one-hour webinars, speakers, podcasts, or “how to” self-help on YouTube, where experts speak of certain leadership traits. They can even learn a quick & dirty way the leadership trait can be applied. In fact, having someone explain it through storytelling, enables people to grasp the concept of the trait. At this point some can go back into their workplace and start testing the trait learned in this way. In cases where a person uses trial-and-error, they may end up creating their own unique way of manifesting the leadership trait.

On the other hand, if the person grasps the concept but still feels they are unprepared to apply it, then they will look into something more structured. Courses, programs, or workshops offer hand-on training in a safe environment. This is where the theory is transformed into practical learning. In fact, there are project-based courses given, similar to those given in my University, where the instructor is the mentor guiding the students through a structured learning program. The student then has a chance to try it in their workplace and use the professor as a sounding board along with their peers in the class. This is an effective way of providing the theory, the practice, and the mentoring from an expert.

Similar to the theoretical styles, it targets multiple people learning at the same time. Thus, the course is more of a group approach than a one-on-one. However, if a student has a hurdle to overcome, the instructor can speak to them on a one-on-one basis. This is not a regular occurrence. So, if a person requires more individual meetings to guide them through the leadership trait, this is where they can reach out to a coach or mentor. Ideally, the mentor a person seeks out is someone that displays the leadership qualities sought. The best mentors are the ones met through networking, business conferences or at one’s workplace. The mentors give their mentees “food for thought”, advise and answer their mentee’s questions based on their own expertise.

Coaching is slightly different. A coach asks powerful questions to the person they are coaching. It is the person being coached that comes up with the answers. The coach is a guide that uses inquisitive questions and intuitive understanding of the person they are coaching to help them figure it out.

In both the coach and mentor styles, there is a high probability that talks occur prior, during and after a situation. But the coach or mentor will be hearing it from their learner, not witnessing it. This brings us to the last practical way of learning which is apprenticeship. Learning on the job, where the mentor or coach remains beside the person as they experience new leadership traits is the most effective way of learning. The trainer will act as a coach, a mentor, or a leader when the situation requires, and the apprentice is there to get the full effect of how theory comes to life in real situations. Then the theory becomes more of a reference than a learning resource.

To answer the question, “can leadership be taught?”, the answer is yes. How it is taught depends on the individual’s learning style. Though apprenticeship encompasses many of the other styles, an individual can choose to use another combination, i.e., take a course and have a mentor or coach at their workplace in addition to having the course’s instructor; or decide to go through the free trainings online to learn the theory, then ask someone to become their mentor or coach. The combinations within the learning styles one can use are many. The trick is to understand one’s needs in choosing the learning style that is most effective for learning and growing as a leader.

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Want to read inspirational stories that make you think? go to our Anna & Dude series.

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