The Case for Leadership in Organizations Today: Can it be Taught?

Dr. Ryan Giffen

The topic of leadership continues to spark the curiosity of the human mind by industry professionals, educators, and students.  For over one-hundred years, scholars and theorist continue to debate the definition of leadership and yet today, there is no definitive answer.  Furthermore, many continue to debate on whether leadership is a natural born innate ability or whether it is an art that one can learn, teach, and apply.  The question of whether leadership can be taught is an unequivocal yes, but only as it relates to certain aspects of leadership.  This blog will contribute to the on-going debate through the exploration of whether leadership can be taught and acquired by others.  

Early in the 20th century, scholars sought the attempt to study leadership by determining which traits made people great leaders (Northouse, 2016).  The “great man” theories identified innate characteristics and qualities possessed by key historical and political figures.  After that, several more studies on leadership traits and characteristics came to fruition.  Robert Katz in 1955 suggested that the skills one has implied what leaders can accomplish whereas traits imply who leaders are (Northouse, 2016).  Katz’s study triggers the debate in whether leadership can be taught as this thought takes the skills approach to leadership.        

In Sharon Parks book Leadership Can Be Taught, the author argues in the affirmative that leadership can be taught because they are activities that can be analyzed and translated into actionable tasks.  Tasks that are developed from the skills an individual acquires from past experiences.  Though this is true to an extent, only certain aspects of leadership can be taught.  Asking a student for example to read a book on snowboarding is only a small part of being an exceptional snowboarder.  Leadership is a performance sport that blends the ability of an individual’s capacity to think and do.  

Professor Ronald Heifetz in Parks (2005) book utilizes the case-in-point method in the classroom.  This method takes teaching techniques, such as lectures, readings, films, dialog, and discussion and gets students to focus on these experiences as the basis of learning leadership.  These experiences are specific components of leadership that in fact can be taught.

Explicit components of leadership that can be taught are strategic thinking and inspirational communication.  Individuals such as former General Electric CEO Jack Welch can teach the leadership component of strategic thinking based on his past successful track record as a strategic executive.  Inspirational communication can be taught by President Barack Obama, who was able to inspire even the most conservative American during the 2008 campaign.  Can these same two individuals teach tacit actions of leadership that are more difficult to measure?  For example, can Jack Welch teach graduate students humility?  Can President Obama teach students how to maintain a positive attitude and build relationships with others?  Welch and Obama can teach these tacit actions. However, it requires the individual to have experience blended with knowledge to fully understand the concept of leadership.  

Individuals must take responsibility of wanting to learn leadership.  A student that is unwilling to be open, motivated, or even accept failure in the process has not learned leadership.  If leadership involves influencing people toward a goal, then leaders do not push followers—they pull them (Hinkin, 2011).  For example, a leader can give an employee the end of a 5-foot rope, grab the other end of the rope and ask them to follow.  It is likely that the employee will follow as the leader pulls them.  Provided the same scenario, push the employee out the door and tell them to go. Most likely the employee will choose not to follow because of the autocratic style of leadership forced upon them.  Most individuals are both leaders and followers given the current situation presented to them at that given moment.  Each will learn from one another’s experience and develop behaviors, characteristics, and traits that can be applied in future leadership situations.

No individual can be taught a discipline without practicing it daily.  The most highly respected scholar can impart leadership aspects of knowledge to a student, but that scholar is unable to impart characteristics of leadership such as ambition, ethics, humility, and confidence.  Through experience, practice, and time the leadership characteristics will be learned.

If leadership can not be taught, complex organizations such as universities and companies must halt all ideas and theories surrounding leadership teachings.  Publications such as the Harvard Business Review and the Journal of Leadership in Education should cease to exist.  Companies should consider laying off training managers and executives.  If leadership can be taught, the methods of teaching must focus on creating meaningful experiences from which the student can learn Parks (2005).  

As supported in this article, the question of whether leadership can be taught is an unequivocal yes but only certain aspects of leadership.  By providing followers (i.e., students, employees, children, etc…) meaningful experiences that relate directly to their circumstances, leaders and teachers can impart the wisdom of leadership components.  However, leaders and teachers will need to create environments that provide individuals the desire to learn leadership.  Leaders and teachers need to provide the opportunity for individuals to analyze leadership situations by bringing out the person’s experiences in which they can relate.  By permitting the individual to reflect on their knowledge, skills, abilities and characteristics, they can apply the art of leadership based on the meaningful experiences the leader and teacher has provided them.  

Hinkin, T. (2011). Becoming a leader in the hospitality industry. In M. E. Sturman, J. B. Corgel, & R. Verma (Eds.), The Cornell school of hotel administration on hospitality (pp. 65-79). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Parks, S. D. (2005). Leadership can be taught. Boston, MA: Harvard business school press.

About Dr. Ryan Giffen

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Ryan Giffen is an expert in human relations and business culture. His career began in hospitality, leading operations and human resource departments for Fortune 500 companies and the like. Not long after, Ryan found his passion for teaching and consulting. He earned a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management with a Human Resources focus from Iowa State University and now works as an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. For over a decade, he continues to research and speak on organizational culture, relationship intelligence, and leadership effectiveness. Ryan is also the founder of Inospire, a company helping bosses and employees build stronger relationships with one another.  Lastly, Dr. Giffen is producer and host of the Corporate Shadow Podcast. a show helping everyday employees overcome workplace nonsense.