Why Don’t We Teach Leadership?

Imagine this scenario: A young adult graduates from high school, having studied not only the three R’s, AP courses, etc. but also the practical and theoretical art of leadership. They can read, write, and solve basic math problems as well as explain things like how to hold people accountable using mutually agreed expectations. Or, they can hold a discussion on the importance of providing a socially safe workplace as a way of improving morale, productivity, innovation, and employee retention. 

At some point in their career, our graduate has exceeded expectations and is promoted to the first level leader position where they excel immediately. They know what to do (and perhaps more importantly, what not to do), they understand the importance of communication, building relationships, establishing a vision, setting goals, building trust, respect, and the creation of a culture that enhances the delivery of organizational goals.

They are not an expert in the art of leadership at this stage, but they have a very shallow learning curve because they have already been exposed to the basics. They are ready to bear the burden of the role because they understand what is coming their way. Though their success is not guaranteed, their increased readiness translates into high-performance potential from the start.

I’ve honestly never heard of a scenario like this, so I had to make it up. Why is this a utopian story and not the norm? Why don’t we institutionally teach leadership to kids in high school? Why not junior high or even earlier? If the curriculum were age-appropriate and if it entailed practical as well as theoretical work, how powerful could the results be?  


Our Leadership Paradigm

What stops us from prioritizing leadership development education for our children? Why do we wait until they are grown and in the workforce, struggling to keep their own job let alone learn leadership skills? Society seems to practice a leadership development paradigm of “survival of the fittest,” meaning that we promote only those who out-perform or out-survive the rest (Note: promoting the best performer does not guarantee success in a leadership role!)? Or could it be that we just don’t understand or respect the importance of the role of the leader or the amount of effort that goes into developing the proper skills to be an effective leader?

What if the latter were the case? Could it really be possible that in the 21st century we still don’t understand, define, and measure the characteristics of effective leaders? I would suggest that it is not only possible but that it is the reality. How could this possibly be the case? Is there something missing in the way we relate to and understand the role of the leader? What assumptions have we historically made about leaders and their effectiveness? Have we taken leadership for granted? Do we even have a reasonably universal and conversational understanding of the skills that effective leaders need to possess?  

If we could “get our arms around what it means to be a leader,” would we then choose to teach those behaviors to our future leaders?

But the fact that we don’t have an objective, universal understanding of desired leadership behaviors speaks volumes about our relationship with the leadership in general. By comparison, look at our relationship with some vocational disciplines like being a surgeon, a chemical engineer, an attorney, a pilot, or a CPA. Our relationship with those skill sets is very well defined, structured, and regulated. There is a clear path to achieving and maintaining expertise and certification in any of those areas, not to mention countless others. Imagine a non-board certified surgeon performing a delicate operation on your child! I doubt that you would stand for that. Yet we stand for ‘un-certified’ leaders each and every day.

In the absence of a formal leadership certification process, how do we regulate who becomes a leader? We have leaders in every walk of life and we regularly anoint leaders who have little or no functional expertise in the very basics of leadership. Then we put them in charge of human beings, equipment, huge budgets, etc. and we expect them to not only deliver but to excel. Then when they fail to meet our expectations, we gossip about them, deride them, reassign or terminate them.  

The obvious question to ask: “How could we possibly expect anyone to succeed as a leader unless they have been the benefactor of an organized, structured curriculum designed to teach them the basics of effective leadership?”

A New Relationship with Leadership

One belief is that our relationship with leadership is gravely outdated. Our contemporary workplace relationship with leadership could come from the old agrarian model when the man of the house was in charge, simply because he was the male, the father. That model seems to have worked on the farm and was subsequently adapted for application during the industrial revolution. Arguably, it served us well in the offices and factories of much of the 20th century in that it helped win two world wars and created a world-class economy.

But those days are gone. That model is obsolete. The male no longer gets to be in charge simply because he is the man of the house. The person who earns the title of a leader needs to have an elastic understanding of the human being, not just the economics of the farm or the boardroom. The person in charge needs to be emotionally intelligent and needs to be armed with the behavioral tools to respect, inspire, and influence others. They need to understand that leaders are defined by those who choose to follow them rather than by order of hierarchy.

The leader of which I speak is made, not born. (I acknowledge that there are personality traits that we associate with effective leadership, but without knowledge of effective leadership behavior, these traits won’t stand the test of time.) They need to learn the basic objective behaviors required of effective leaders and they need to have the social and emotional skills with which to apply them – and it would be best if they learn them before they are anointed as leaders. Our current expectation that one learns those complex skills while on the job is a recipe for disappointment if you measure turnover, lost productivity, low morale, etc. The losers in that scenario are not only the people in the department but the company as a whole, not to mention the subtle collective impact on society in general.

Yet this continues every day in our society, does it not? Is it time to re-evaluate our relationship with leadership itself and how we choose to develop leaders? Is it time to re-evaluate what we can reasonably expect from leaders under our current system? And is it time to ask ourselves, as a society, why we don’t accept the responsibility to teach leadership fundamentals to those who will be leading all of us in the years ahead?

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

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