How Accessible is Leadership?

The context for the question, “How accessible is leadership?” has to do with how the average person learns how to be a leader, who is it that teaches us about leadership and how do we prepare ourselves for leadership positions in life?  

Let’s take a look.

For simplicity in answering this question, let’s break down a person’s life into two-time segments: before age 22 and after age 22. I choose age 22 because that represents the theoretical age at which a college graduate receives their diploma and moves into the working world – remember I did say ‘theoretical.’

Let’s consider some elements that might define what Formal Leadership development could look like: 

  • Qualified instructor in Advanced education, certification, practical experience, or some combination of those. 
  • A standardized curriculum Includes a comprehensive definition and explanation of foundational leadership qualities. Ex: How to develop mutual expectations or establish an organizational vision and mission.
  • Specific timeframe for instruction, perhaps requiring a demonstration of competence in practical skills.  
  • Certificate or diploma awarded.  

It sounds a bit like going to school to learn leadership! This level of formality could represent what Stephen Covey might have called a “true north of leadership.” This framework might create more questions than answers at this point, but let’s leave that for another discussion.

Given those rough guidelines, let’s look at the leadership development opportunities one might experience prior to age 22. Most of them could be considered as informal when compared to our guidelines. They were likely provided by one’s parents, teachers, peer groups, sports coaches, church experiences, scouting, the workplace, and other similar circumstances.

In a more formal sense, let’s note that college degrees in leadership are available and the military teaches leadership in its own unique way as well. 

Most of those informal experiences tend to provide leadership development as a by-product of a larger objective, rather than as the main goal. For example, on a sports team, a type of leadership can be learned through observing, challenging one’s self, expanding one’s comfort zone, creation of stress, etc. in the process of practicing and playing the sport, but is generally not the primary purpose.  

What other opportunities does a ‘pre-22-year-old’ have to learn and develop formal leadership skills that you can think of?

Let’s move forward to look at the ‘post-22-year-old.’ There may be Formal Leadership development opportunities after age 22 but for many the primary source shifts from parents, teachers, sports, etc. to the workplace. Their best chance of exposure to leadership development now comes personally from their direct boss, mentors, peers, human resources, training, workshops, seminars, books, etc. 

What does your boss know about Formal Leadership? Your mentor? Your peers? They probably learned about leadership the same way you have, which is informal. So imagine the results when informally trained leaders are training new leaders. How far have we strayed from our ‘true north of leadership?’

I was once asked to coach on a topic that I considered a foundational, bedrock concept that effective leaders would know and apply often. The discussion was a success, providing a somewhat formal opportunity for them to learn the concept. But I later wondered how a seasoned, senior leader with 30 plus years of experience could have been leading effectively without already having that skill in their toolbox? I questioned how society missed the chance to prepare that leader long before then? Was that situation the exception or the norm?

Formal training can be useful and powerful. In-house workshops can be very useful when properly supported and attended. Outside seminars can be valuable when properly supported and attended as well. And well-written books provide a stream of useful, valuable insights into leadership skills.

But while investing in those training opportunities looks like a good investment, the reality in my experience is that unless the whole company attends and learns new habits which shift the prevailing culture, a single individual who returns to the office after attending is quickly swept up into the current of that prevailing culture, is overpowered and often forgets or is unable to use the new lessons learned. Some investment. 

Additionally, workshops, seminars, and books are really good at suggesting what a person ‘should’ do in order to become a good leader, but frequently offer little or no insight about how to overcome what is inhibiting them from doing those things in the first place. My library is stocked with books that tell me what I ‘should’ be doing, but few help me sort out why I don’t do those things already.

So back to the original question, “How do we prepare ourselves for leadership positions in life?” I would suggest that the end of the day, access to leadership development is a self-guided journey. A life-long one which tends to be somewhat random for the individual and rather inconsistent across society. There are few quality checkpoints in this journey and the variability in the effectiveness of the types of leadership we ‘consume’ rather confirms the point.

Yet our continuing practice is to place human beings into leadership positions who have more anecdotal than a concrete understanding of what the role entails. Then we expect them to get results, immediately, in most cases. We rely on their past performance to promote the high performers, then stand by and wonder why they are not a superstar when they become a leader. Hmmm. How could they perform optimally as a leader, especially under pressure when their leadership toolbox, experience, and knowledge was built on an informal foundation? Perhaps it is time to rethink how we develop leaders and what results we can reasonably expect from them.

For more on the notion of leadership, contact Dave Cain of Cain Consulting LLC.

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