Can leadership be learned?


Leadership is a hot topic. We extol our favorite leaders and demonize those who have fallen from grace. When we talk about leadership we often speak of vision and transforming an organization from failure to success. We speak of ethics and values. We describe leadership in terms of character, using such words as courage and heroism. Other times, we speak of exemplary personal behavior. And some view leadership as a style, comparing different approaches and their effect.

With the many ways of describing leadership, how do we answer the question, “Can leaders be developed?” The next question is even more difficult: “If leadership can be developed, how do we do it?” Both challenge senior management in building leadership competence and depth.

Can leaders be developed? The answer is resoundingly yes and no. Yes for competencies and limiting assumptions, no for inherent capabilities. This short article explores both and highlights the organizations responsibility in identifying and then grooming tomorrow’s leaders.

 What can you do to develop your leadership?


Beliefs and Assumptions

By the time we reach maturity, we have developed personal values, ethics and character traits. Some of these traits may have been genetically influenced. But a wealth of other inputs have also shaped our value systems. Families, culture, religion, schooling and peers have contributed to the value system of our personality. Our sense of right and wrong, of fairness and justice, of honesty and integrity is deeply rooted and difficult, however NOT IMPOSSIBLE to change. Working with a good coach will reveal what these beliefs and underlying assumptions are and the impact that they have on your life and work performance. If you hold a belief “I am no good at presenting or my input is not valued” then you will display behaviors that limit your personal growth and leadership effectiveness. Changing these beliefs is where personal transformation takes place.
In the ACT-leadership program, we focus on these during the Assessment and Coaching phase.


Leadership is about doing three things. First, leaders create a vision. They have a picture of the future they can describe so others can see it. The vision may have no precise goals or numbers, but it does describe a future reality. It may be difficult to achieve, but not impossible. There may not be a precise plan, but there is a road map.
Second, leaders build alignment. They energize people to commit to the vision and articulate how to achieve it. Leaders may achieve alignment through rousing speeches, charisma, personal loyalty, rational argument, etc. It is not how leaders create alignment but that they do create it.

The third element of leadership is deployment. Leaders take finite resources and determine how to achieve their visions. These deployment decisions form the strategic direction.

Once leadership is translated into creating vision, building alignment and effecting deployment, it becomes tangible and can be developed.

In the ACT-leadership program, we focus on these during the Training phase.


What we cannot develop

We cannot change our DNA. We are all blessed with unique inherent capabilities that have potential and limitations. We do not all have the capability to develop the scientific genius of Einstein. Or the artistic capabilities of Michelangelo. Or the psychomotor genius of Michael Jordan. We can certainly study, practice and improve our skills. But at some point we reach the limits of our potential.
This is true regarding leadership skills. Although we can learn, practice and develop our leadership skills, we also have inherent human limitations. Some of us are more intuitive in how we see the world (although I would argue intuition can be developed). That makes vision development easier. Some of us are inherently extroverts. That makes communications and building alignment easier. Leadership, like all other skills, can only be developed to the limit of our potential.


Organization Responsibility

Organizations can develop leadership talent in five ways:

  1. Select leaders based on the leadership attributes above, not just functional competence or experience.
  2. Match leader competencies and preferences with role.
  3. Provide leader with a coach for personal and professional development as well as job performance.
  4. Provide formal leadership development training for all aspects of leadership that can be developed.
  5. Move fast on leaders not performing, especially if they are not willing to change.


Leadership is the combination of character, competence, and performance. Select for character. Develop for competence. Set high standards and reward for performance. Put them together for a winning combination that leads to success.

It is the responsibility of the organization to identify the emerging talent that should be groomed as a leader of tomorrow.

ACT is an internationally recognized coaching, leadership development and consulting company known for its commitment to leadership and performance coaching, valuing its long term partnerships with Brown University, the intelligence communities and its loyal and devoted diverse community.