Leadership. Can it be taught?

This question has been buzzing around my head for the last few months after a discussion with a particularly arogant orifice.

Can you teach leadership or is it inherent? Are we born with it?

This thread is running in the training wing, just thought I'd open it to the Officers. :D
Taught - no. Refined - yes. You got to have something about you to start with.
My point exactly. So your saying it can't be taught? Then why is it "taught" on courses? Is it "taught" at Sandhurst?
Right this could open me to abuse as a non graduate with no RCB expierence but as far as I understand the RCB briefing and RCB are there to identify those with leadership potential. However as said I do belive there are those born to lead and those who are not. However I also think it may be possible to 'teach' leadership to an extent.
devilish said:
My point exactly. So your saying it can't be taught? Then why is it "taught" on courses? Is it "taught" at Sandhurst?
Certainly the theory of leadership is taught. This leads to the question what is practical leadership as opposed to theory? Is it possible to "teach", coach or develop this at a pace faster than the individual might develop the same skill level if forced into the role without any support?
Perhaps it is a case of having something in you to begin with. Some have it, others don't. But even those who have it, aren't going to go and take charge of a platoon on ops just after RCB are they! So the training brings this out of you, develops it up and polishes it off ready for the job...

You can't polish something that isn't there but even if its there it'd be like iron still in the ore, potential but not ready to be used properly yet.

Or maybe I'm talking arrse.
Authority and leadership are two related but separate things that are often conflated, occasionally when it is too late and with disastrous consequences. Commanding is an art that can be taught; the ability to lead is an inherent quality possessed by few that can only be honed.

The principles of command and effective communication are taught and developed with practice. Passing them on occurs at a Sandhurst or a Harvard Business School and is the easier (i.e., more academic) part of the process of developing a military or corporate officer. On the other hand, the quality of leadership, assuming its “seed” exists in an individual and can be awakened from its usually dormant state, can only be sharpened by repeated exposure to stressful situations (i.e., experience) where people, not books, are involved.

Programs such as Sandhurst exist first and foremost to push a group of pre-selected individuals to discover their limits, thereby advancing their knowledge of self, which is the fundamental ingredient required for them to eventually (hopefully) become actual leaders.
Funny you should ask, I answered that question in a recent essay at university. Although the question was 'Can leadership be learned?'....

I still haven't got a mark back for it, but I suspect its a 2:2.

I did try and attach the file but was unsuccessful (some limit had been exceeded) So I am sorry for the extra long response, but hopefully it will answer the question fully. The question is obviously open to huge interpretation and debate, but I gave it a shot. As it is copied and pasted from Word, references arn't included.

Please feel free to comment on it:

Before deciding whether leadership can be learned, it is essential that the word ‘leadership’ is defined. John Maxwell, the author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, sums up his definition of leadership as "leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less." In essence, the learning of leadership is the quest to achieve greater influence amongst the people you lead or intend to lead. Although influence is certainly a substantial part of the force behind leadership, the individual needs to have other traits to substantiate and maintain the role as a leader amongst his followers.

In order to establish whether leadership can be learned, it should also be pointed out that a leader can be anyone, from a head waiter up to President of the United States of America, and for these people to utilise their position as a leader effectively, they need to have certain traits and experience, without which they would be ineffective. A key factor in determining whether leadership can be learned is to analyse the certain types of leadership approaches, styles and general theories on what makes an effective leader. Leadership can be learned, since good leaders develop through a never ending process of self-study, education, training, and experience although it is doubtful whether great leadership can be taught and internalised without certain god given characteristics.

Most people are not natural leaders, but for example in regards to program managers, leadership is imperative to the success of a program. The program manager must inspire his team to achieve goals and ensure the team shares the vision. At the same time, the program manager must be able to energize the team to perform and imbue subordinates with a sense of purpose. The program manager is an organizer of process as well as people. Being able to organize people so a definitive goal might be realized defines leadership more than any other factor. A leader motivates and achieves "buy-in" by subordinates. If one is not a natural leader by default, then the only alternative is to become "educated" in leadership attributes and modify one's behaviour to assume those leadership qualities.

Can leadership be taught? There is a preconceived notion that there are certain traits which great leaders possess which the ordinary person simply does not have, can these traits be adopted or taught? Originally in the 1940’s the trait approach was adopted. The trait approach emphasizes the personal qualities of leaders and implies that leaders are born rather then made. Yet to further cast doubt over the notion that leaders have God give traits an influential review by Stogdill (1948) of trait research cast doubt on the evidence. His was not the only assessment that had sounded a negative note, but it was the most influential. Stogdill failed to find consistent evidence to suggest that personal factors played a part in who became a leader. At best he was able to conclude that the personal factors associated with leadership are substantially affected by the requirements of the situation from which the leader emerges. This suggests that the personal factors associated with leadership are situation specific.

This then appears to reflect the view that the environment determines what type of leader is most important. For example with regards to Winston Churchill, he was considered a brilliant war time prime minister, yet a weak peace time minister, so much so that even after leading his country to victory against Germany and her allies, the British people didn’t vote him back in as Prime minister. This is the contingency approach to leadership, which proposes that the effectiveness of a leadership style is situationally contingent. This means that a particular style or pattern of behaviour will be effective in some circumstances (such as when a task is intrinsically satisfying, or when the personalities of subordinates predispose them to a particular style) but not others. W.O Jenkins published his summary of 72 books and articles on military leadership. He concluded that:

“Leadership is specific to the particular situation under investigation. Who becomes a leader of a particular group engaging in a particular activity and what the characteristics are in the given case are a function of the specific situation……”
‘It's not something you can easily teach, according to an expert who does teach leadership classes, but an aspiring manager can learn in the classroom. If you want to try and learn leadership skills, the University of Washington's Tacoma campus is offering leadership sessions through May 18.’ This extract proves that at least certain individuals and academic institutions, consider that leadership can be learned. The lecturer in the article this goes on to back up the notion that different people can become leaders, although it depends on the situation. ‘Fandt said all concepts about leadership begin with the individual, and different types of leaders thrive in different environments.’
It is logical that the best person situated for the job of leader is the person who has the most knowledge of the situation their team or company faces. ‘Let each man pass his days in that wherein his skill is greatest’ wrote the Roman poet Propertius in the first century B.C. As a leader, you should have the kind of temperament, personal qualities and knowledge required by the working situation that has arisen. Technical competence or professional knowledge is a key strand in your authority. To illustrate this theory, let us imagine some survivors of a shipwreck landing on a tropical island. The soldier in the party might take command if natives attacked them, the builder organise the work of erecting houses and the farmer might direct the labour of growing food. In other words leadership would pass from member to member in according to the situation.

To further illustrate that leadership can be learned we need not look further then Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.’ ‘Sandhurst is a leadership academy focussed on preparing officer cadets for military service. The Commissioning Course introduced in 1992 and accredited since 1997 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is the first stage of officer training and education. Its main purpose is to develop an officer with the generic leadership qualities to lead soldiers both on and off operations.’ Their mission statement is ‘Through military training and education, to develop the qualities of leadership, character and intellect demanded of an Army Officer on first appointment.’ When we refer to leadership, many people conjure up glorious images of past military leaders; even Winston Churchill was educated at Sandhurst, so how could leadership not be taught? The British army and government are positive that leadership can be taught otherwise there would be no need for the military to ‘develop qualities of leadership’.

Bass' theory of leadership states that there are three basic ways to explain how people become leaders. The first two explain the leadership development for a small number of people. These theories are:

Some personality traits may lead people naturally into leadership roles. This is the Trait Theory.
A crisis or important event may cause a person to rise to the occasion, which brings out extraordinary leadership qualities in an ordinary person. This is the Great Events Theory.
People can choose to become leaders. People can learn leadership skills. This is the Transformational Leadership Theory. It is the most widely accepted theory today and the premise on which this guide is based.

“Leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less.”
A quick extract from the synopsis of the book Influence: Science and Practice (2001) authored by Robert D Cialdini. ‘Have you ever found yourself saying "yes" to a telemarketer or to a child selling candy and then wonder why you have just agreed to subscribe to a magazine that you really aren't interested in or to buy a candy bar that you really don't want? In this revised, updated, and expanded book, not only will you find out what techniques were used to get you to say yes, but you will also learn some worthwhile ways to defend yourself from future requests.’
From this short synopsis it is evident that his view on the key to influence is to have the ability to persuade people to say yes to your requests, therefore logically articulation would be a key point in influence. The ability to become more articulate, and to know when to say what for effective gains can be learned, otherwise this book and books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1934).

To paraphrase W. Somerset Maugham, "There are three rules for creating good leaders. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

There is no perfect leader, which is why good leaders are always trying to improve themselves through self-study, training, education, mentor-ship, making mistakes and then learning from them, etc. Since there are no perfect leaders, it is hard to build a good leadership model, which is why there are hundreds of them. But, we can be sure of a few things that good leaders posses:

1) A vision of the future (where are we going).

2) The ability to encourage followers to jump into that experience (work through the many changes that are required to achieve that vision).

3) A love of self-improvement for themselves and their followers. This love makes them good coaches and mentors.

4) Empowering their followers to get things done (delegation).

Good leaders possess at least some of the points above. With regards to the question, each specific point above can also be learned. How to judge risk and analyse future risks, the ability to encourage followers, self improvement and the ability to empower can all be taught at least to a degree where the individual can become an adequate leader, otherwise institutions such as Sandhurst, Universities teaching leadership and many modules within MBA and management programmes would essentially be a waste of time.

On the other hand, if leadership can be learned, why doesn’t everyone at least try to become a leader? Surely everybody wants to be the ‘leader of the pack’ or ‘top of the pile’. Leadership positions on average offer better money, greater empowerment, and surely more respect? Individuals, who aspire to be leaders in their chosen fields, might simply not excel at being a leader, or be any good at all. Therefore even though leadership can be taught, I am not sure whether it will make a person as effective as those with certain traits. Undoubtedly, there are certain basic traits which will give an individual an advantage to become a better leader then others competing for the same position, this does not mean that the others can not learn to be a effective leader, it means that certain people already have a great advantage over others, which cause them to rise through the ranks faster then others.

‘Intelligence is positively correlated with managerial performance’ There is no surprise in that statement. Intelligence will enable a leader to make better accurate decisions faster then a less intelligent person. The individual’s intelligence could be natural or conditioned through hard study and work. An intelligent person will also be able to judge situations more precisely, and learn from experiences quicker, all which add to a better leader. ‘12 of 23 studies found intelligence higher for leaders’.

Charisma is also a trait which is found amongst certain individuals. Charisma has a great affect on influence, and therefore on leadership. Although Charisma can be improved through coaching, it is not a skill which can be learned, therefore as said before, there are elements which help people become leaders which some individuals do not have. ‘The term (charisma) is often employed to describe someone who is flamboyant, who is a powerful speaker, and who can persuade others of the importance of his or her message’

Different types of leadership will need different qualities. Royal Military Academy Sandhurst will be teaching and emphasising the authoritarian approach to leadership. This approach does not necessarily need great charisma. Of course if the individual possesses great charisma he might rise in the ranks faster then his compatriots who don’t. For example, in the case of an Entrepreneur, he needs to be innovative and visionary, this simply cannot be taught either, leadership courses help to enhance it, although there is no clear cut method to improve an Entrepreneurs thoughts, they can only help them calculate risks more effectively.


Essentially if an individual argues that leadership can’t be learned, he would undoubtedly be arguing that there are God given talents which certain individuals are born with, and without these talents and traits you are unable to become an effective leader. Many Intelligent people have argued this point. Here is an extract from an eminent lecturer at St. Andrews University on leadership (1934):

“It is a fact that some men possess an inbred superiority which gives them a dominating influence over their contemporaries, and marks them out unmistakable for leadership. In a school among boys, in a college among students, in a factory, shipyard, of a mine among the workmen, as certainly as in the Church and in the Nation, there are those who, with an assured and unquestioned title, take the leading place, and shape the general conduct.”

He would be wrong on more then one level. Firstly it has been argued that person who becomes a leader within their organisation is determined less by their leadership qualities and more by their political skills, therefore those supposed God given talents of leadership might not even help the individual reach their potential in the organisations hierarchy. Furthermore, the question asks us whether leadership can be learned, the answer is yes, this is clear since academic institutions such as the University of Washington has special courses to enhance and learn leadership qualities, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst teaches and enhances the individuals ability to lead using the authoritarian method of leadership, and many prestigious Universities offer MBA’s and management courses which try and teach students what motivates their employees, and what leadership styles are preferential in different situations. There is no doubt that leadership can be taught and nurtured through experience, although undoubtedly certain qualities which help enhance leadership and influence others such as charisma and high intelligence will disallow some people to become great leaders.
Impera said:
Funny you should ask, I answered that question in a recent essay at university. Although the question was 'Can leadership be learned?'....
Those who have, or are about to, come into the civilian community and do any sort of course work such as Business Studies will find that almost the first thing they are asked to examine is "Leadership - is it an Art or a Skill? i.e. Are people born with it (art) or can it be learned (skill). The civvy DS answer is "Both" Those who have a glimmer can pick it up better than those who do not. Whilst as Mr 2.2. says, Joadlike, "depends on what you mean by leadership" is correct, practical consideration is that a manager is not expected or likely to require Chief Exec level of leadership straight out of the box. They grow into it and, therefore, art or skill is immaterial. What is important is leadership experience which gives one confidence to exert leadership above and beyond normal range when expected. I was involved in a incident where bomb caused major disruption and we had a severe flood that knocked out the whole office block of my employers. Having been a sort of leader, I was able to project what was seen as leadership by other staff and emergency crews. My own assessment from those two incidents was that it is the end product that counts and not how one got there.
In civilian life, "leadership" has disappeared. We have managers. And the more they get sent off on cushy residential courses with swimming pools and saunas the worse they get at managing. David Brent is funny because he is palpably real.

I reckon Sandhurst could make gazillions by developing a residential course based on their leadership principles and flogging it off to blue-chip companies and large public sector organisations. They could send their managers on it, they'd learn more about responsibility and administration living in the field for a week than they would agreeing with each other over powerpoint demos in a Gloucestershire spa hotel.

I agree with the person who said that leadership is about having certain qualities that can be developed through training. I also think that there a different types of leaders; it's a personal thing but as long as the end result is fit for purpose then it doesn't really matter. FWIW, the most charismatic and effective leader I ever encountered in the army was a WO1 who went through Sandhurst in his very early thirties, I think he was the youngest WO1 in the army at that time.

On his office door: "Lead, Follow or get out of the way"
If leadership can't be "taught" then we wouldn't have LE's. Some are fortunate enough to have gained some experiences in life that fit them to be capable of leadership earlier than others. The question is not whether, or if, it can be taught but the aptitude of the individual to benefit from the combination of life experience and training. For some it comes together early enough in life to pass an RCB in their early 20's and is refined with training, for others it is a longer process gained with 20-some years experience that fits them for a position that demands leadership - be it as a SNCO or an LE Capt. What matters is the end result at the tmie, not how quickly it can be achieved.
You cannot teach leadership but you can nurture the seeds that are there. My boss at work keeps telling me not to take control all the time and step back and let others have a go. I have a strong personality and a forceful nature so as everyone stands and twiddles their thumbs I just get stuck in and start ordering everyone about as they are Jocks!!
It's a facinating topic - I went through the mill at Sandhurst in 1987 and spent a few years as a normal Gunner before joining 7 Para RHA. Since then I've managed companies in Hong Kong and the Middle East - I'm now finishing off an MBA with a chosen electives in Leadership. Civi's pay enormous amounts of cash to learn the lessons from Sandhurst and the early years as a Subalturn making the inevitable Leadership gaffs with your first Troop. Can leadership be taught - in my opinion yes it can but like some of the other respondents I feel that there needs to be a seed of leadership to nurture - In the 40's Trait studies were popular to try and identify what made up leaders - there are some trends - they tend to be the eldest born sibling, independent from a young age, enjoy self study, able to work alone without a dependence for the company of others. In modern times the term Emotional Intelegence is used and describes several of the factors required of leaaders today. A study of the leadership shown by Earnest Shakleton in the South Atlantic (well regarded as a "Best Practice" example) shows many of the Emotional Intelegence criteria. Interestingly enough he went through a Merchant Navy Academy that taught many of the same lessons taught at RMAS. Where do the seeds of leadership come from - Humans are pack animals with complex communication and social interactions, however they still demonstrate many of the pack criteria. When a litter is born over time an alpha male will emerge - this I aliken to the many of the thoughts regarding the God given leadership atributes. Leadership is also situational - Military authoritarian leadership is highly effective in situations of extreem stress where clear direction is an absolute necessity (2 up and bags of smoke chaps), in the commercial world it can be just as importent but so can the softer skills such as empathy and listening skills.

Enough babble - I have to deliver a leadership lesson to a client in 5 mins
In my experience the army does not teach the right format of leadership compatible with civilian organisations. Industry expects leaders to be pragmatic and question why we do things and can we get better results by doing it another way. The army concept is very much a case of 'why change, this way always works.' Granted it works but is it be economic? In my opnion no given the lines of reporting the army still uses in the modern world.

Leadership is a complex topic and people think it is a case of being out front and shouting orders. Remember the ACL model - you have to operate in all three circles.
Aintbrokedontfixit said:
In my experience the army does not teach the right format of leadership compatible with civilian organisations. Industry expects leaders to be pragmatic and question why we do things and can we get better results by doing it another way. The army concept is very much a case of 'why change, this way always works.' Granted it works but is it be economic? In my opnion no given the lines of reporting the army still uses in the modern world.

Leadership is a complex topic and people think it is a case of being out front and shouting orders. Remember the ACL model - you have to operate in all three circles.
Are you actually in the Army? "Why change this way always works"...lolol. Improvise,Adapt and overcome! Ring any bells?

In many situations Leadership within the Military has to be diffrent to a civillian style of leadership if you can`t see this then maybe your leadership qualities should be questioned..Example "Could you and your Sect Pleaseeee go and attack that enemy posistion?", "Oi Pte X would you please do a sniff test?"

I believe Leadership qualities can be demonstrated in every day life, however it takes a certain individual to recognise this and pick out the good bits to better theirselves! Therefore leadership can better aided but not taught.. As already mentioned there has to be something there beforehand.
Aintbrokedontfixit said:
In my experience the army does not teach the right format of leadership compatible with civilian organisations. Industry expects leaders to be pragmatic and question why we do things and can we get better results by doing it another way. The army concept is very much a case of 'why change, this way always works.' Granted it works but is it be economic? In my opnion no given the lines of reporting the army still uses in the modern world.

Leadership is a complex topic and people think it is a case of being out front and shouting orders. Remember the ACL model - you have to operate in all three circles.
lolol...by the way... Just spotted this... your quote and your name?
Did you wahhhh me without actually knowing?
Good Drills!!
Hmm, must be why we still practice the old cold war tactics then? Your confusing the concept, and most people who are ill informed tend to operate in the 'task' circle - at the expense of the team and individual. The measure of a leader is not just about being at the front and shouting orders.
Sorry to break into you area of ARRSE but, as an ex-WO1 Sapper of 5 years in the rank, from the perspective of those who have to endure your leading I would say that leaders are born not taught. There is a process in which the Army 'trains' its less natufally well endowed (in leadership) to get by. Many officers get by simply by slavishly following the advice they have received on leadership without an ounce of inspiration of their own. I believe the same is true for many LE officers who have risen to RSM as bullies not true leaders. In my last tour I had 2 CO's 3 OC's and 3 GEs (LE) only one of which could lead a dog without a set of SOPs to guide him.

The men see straight through a bad leader so if yours seem a bit distant, reluctant to come forward and refuse to open up to you then you have a problem.

By the way did not go for commission by choice - never applied, I saw the way the manning/work ratio was going and decided to earn more for less grief.

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