Some people think leadership can’t be taught

I get strange looks when I tell people that I teach leadership. Some people think leadership can’t be taught or are quite curious about how one might teach leadership. From the beginnings of people living in groups, leadership has primarily been taught by the observation method. People learn from the example of leaders around them. The one major exception is for those who have been in the military. The military has been the only mass educator of leadership in our country’s history and in many countries around the globe. As long as there was a compulsory draft, the military was able to shape leadership in approximately half of the population. In the last twenty years, higher education has stepped in to try to provide a wide opportunity of leadership education for those who do not choose the military path. Southwestern was one of the first colleges in the state of Kansas and among the early adopters in the United States to join the effort to shape the leadership of young adults.

Back to the original question—how do you teach leadership? At Southwestern College, we have chosen to work on an integrated approach; we want to shape a person’s knowledge, skills, values, and performance. It isn’t enough to pass the Intro to Leadership final; students of leadership need to practice, practice, and practice.

We think about leadership as a system. The organic, moving system includes the leader and the followers, who are surrounded by a context and together they are pursuing change that contributes to the common good. Young adult leaders in my classes are trying to understand themselves by becoming more self-aware; they are trying to understand followers’ perception of leaders, followers’ motivations, and followers’ behaviors; they are trying to grasp how what is going on around them affects the work they are trying to do; and they are trying to determine how to facilitate change. I expect that they can pass a test on these concepts and more importantly that they become proficient in the skills related to performing in this leadership system.

That is a tall order. Becoming self aware is difficult learning. Most 18 year olds are comfortable with someone coaching them on their basketball dribbling skills or singing pitch but not on feedback about how their bossy attitude affects the group.

Most 18 year olds are emerging from an intense period of self-focus and thinking about how others’ perspectives play into decision making is new ground for them.

Most 18 year olds have a limited frame of reference about the world; the idea that people who come from different backgrounds do things differently seems reasonable to their minds but surprises them when they encounter those differences. Most 18 year olds are comfortable with being bombarded with change but they have not been empowered to help shape that change for the benefit of the world.

Leadership shaping starts early. Most 3rd graders do not hesitate when asked to draw a picture of leader. Role models, life experiences, education, adversity, spiritual transformation are all pieces that contribute to a person’s idea of leadership. Research tells us that one very powerful shaping experience for a young leader is a moment when a significant adult recognized leadership potential and took the opportunity to tell him or her. If that is the case, we can help build the leadership capacity of our community by telling a kid or two “I see a leader in you.”

Leadership shaping is a lifetime learning opportunity. If we’re honest, most of the leadership development work outlined for the young adult wouldn’t hurt most of us to give some attention to. So, if you’ve listened to my long explanation about how leadership is taught and you’re thinking, “I should take that class!” Come on!

-Cheryl Rude, Ph.D. Professor of Leadership, Chair of the Social Sciences Division, Southwestern College in Winfield, KS

Guest writer for the Leadership Butler article on leadership development