After 30 years of coaching, training and teaching in a variety of leadership programs and initiatives, I have come to the realization that you simply can’t teach leadership, any more than you can teach height, or creativity. It’s strangely axiomatic that something which cannot be taught can be learned. Dramatic life events are not part of any curriculum but we certainly learn from them.

In the case of learning leadership you can create environments, exercises and opportunities for personal reflection that might, and I underscore might, allow an individual’s leadership potential to emerge, and be cultivated to grow.

As my colleague, David McPhillips, so ably demonstrates in courses we teach together, ask a group as small as five people to write down three words that describe leadership.  In many years of conducting this exercise, we’ve never yet seen a match, that is one word EVERYONE wrote down.  And yet we talk about leadership as if it’s one, monolithic characteristic, or talent, or trait.

Leadership programs are everywhere, and most take similar stabs at the set of skills or tools required. That’s okay as far as it goes, and if leadership were a task, like changing the oil in a car, that would be quite enough.  The problem is that leadership, like creativity, is a shimmer on the horizon which might be a cool oasis, or nothing at all.  It has to be coaxed and prodded, reassured and stroked, approached cautiously and with positive intent.

If you are struggling to develop leaders, or your own leadership, here are five ideas that I have found fruitful over the past three decades:

  1. Beast Examination. We all have personas that we adopt for different occasions and different purposes but down deep there is one, abiding persona that we know to be real.  Sadly, we tend to overestimate some of our abilities and disregard others which are helpful. Find that inner beast and be honest about it.
  2. Get help. It’s so tough to be challenged on the person we think we are and the one we show to others but it’s just not possible to objectively see yourself, either physically or emotionally.  The you that greets you in the mirror is the flipside of the you the rest of the world sees; the voice you hear when you rehearse in the car is not the voice they’ll hear when you arrive and start talking.
  3. Read minds. Think of someone in your life, at work or elsewhere.  Close your eyes and think hard about what is going on in their world, what factors will determine how you should approach them.  Be aware that much of what we think we “read” in others is really a crude form of mental reverb where we impose our attitudes and priorities on others.
  4. Practice generosity. Look for chances to improve the circumstances of those around you without expecting anything in return. Call me crazy but I believe good things you do for others will come back, maybe not to you or even your children’s children, but they will come back somewhere and thereby up the amount of generosity in the world overall.
  5. Chase the sun. All this striving and planning and struggling can cloud our view of the sun. If you are lucky enough to live at the pointy tip of Maslow’s triangle, If you were fortunate enough to be born in a time and place where basic survival is a given, where your personal security is rarely threatened or even shaken, where you can pursue greatness in your own way, you owe it to those who aren’t so fortunate to bloody well appreciate it and be happy.

There are many more ways to create an environment where leadership can be discovered and where it can thrive.  We may not be able to teach it, but it can be learned.

I’m always happy to discuss this, and other approaches to living fruitfully.

Joanna Piros