Can you learn leadership while sat in a classroom?

Written by
Hari Tsoukas

24 Nov 2015

24 Nov 2015 • by Hari Tsoukas

Is there such a thing as a perfect leader? Is charisma important when looking at leaders? Just a few of many questions often asked.

But turning this idea on its head, a question some ponder is whether leadership skills can really be taught from books or in an academic context? The answer, of course, is it is not quite as simple as that.

There is nothing that cannot be taught in a classroom. But no one can master a skill by spending his/her life only in the classroom. Leadership is such a skill. 

We tend to forget that MBA and executive education courses provide settings for teaching people who are already skilled in leadership leaders. They need not be high in the organization hierarchy, nor do they need to do anything dramatic, big or heroic to deserve the label “leader”. But, typically, they oversee others, manage limited resources, need to make decisions, and exercise initiative – they need to show ‘leadership’.

What are the benefits of sitting in a session on leadership then?

Working in the classroom with people who are already skilled in leadership is particularly enjoyable as it is demanding. It can certainly be enlightening for classroom participants. The classroom provides a setting in which their normal, organizational life is disrupted. 

Properly stimulated, participants can be encouraged to reflect on their own hitherto behaviour, of which they had had limited awareness in the midst of their practice. They can see patterns they did not know about, they can revisit important organisational episodes and see them in a new light, and, through appropriate exercises and material, they can experience leadership moments which enhance self-knowledge. 

Teaching leadership is not like teaching Accounting or Physics – it does not so much impart new information as it helps disclose new worlds. Suitable material is needed for this, and what is better material than participants’ own experiences as well as others’ experiences that challenge a participant and invite him/her to take some action on. 

Where can leaders learn about leadership beyond the norm?

I believe there are a number of places outside of textbooks and classrooms students of leadership can pick up leadership skills. Lessons can be learnt from history – Keith Grint teaches a course to executive education students based on history lessons from the Second World War for example – and even in Shakespeare and great literature – Myself and Jonothan Neelands use such influences in a Leading Wisely course for executives.

Shakespearean dramas, Greek tragedies and, more generally, great literature are incredibly useful devices for one to sharpen one’s leadership skills. They are great learning resources indeed. 

In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, we see the best description of competing goods – both protagonists (Creon, the King of Thebes, and Antigone, his rebellious nice) are right, and this is the true tragedy of the play. There is profound depth in great literature from which reflective people can learn a great deal about themselves. In reflecting on Othello’s vulnerability or on Creon’s intransigence, we reflect on, and learn about, aspects of ourselves. By doing so, we deepen our second-order complexity. Leadership skills are developed when we seek opportunities to reflect on human experience, ours and others’.

Reflecting on practices of leader

The outcome of such teaching is subtle perception, greater self-awareness, and holistic understanding. The classroom is not a substitute for the real world but a temporary withdrawal from the real world so that one can be acquainted with concepts and ways of thinking, feeling and perceiving that will help one revisit what one had always known but had not been aware of. 

One will not learn to be a great leader in a classroom but one may begin to acquire the skill of on-going self-improvement as a leader. A better leader rather than the great leader is what teaching leadership in the classroom should aim at.   

I would say then, people can pick these skills up in the classroom, but to become a wise leader it is crucial to maintain the balance between knowing and doubting. To do this, one needs to act like an acrobat: the balance is accomplished through the effort to mindfully adjust one’s posture as one walks on the wire.

Leadership has always been about defining reality, focusing others’ attention on what needs to be done, and inspiring people to do it. ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it’, said General Dwight Eisenhower. 

And to slightly paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, stop all theorising about what a good leader should be. Be it! So, yes leadership can be taught, but it also requires people to learn from experience.