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Learning to Lead

CAMBRIDGE – Public-opinion polls show that citizens in many democracies are unhappy with their leaders. This is particularly true in Great Britain, where a number of members of Parliament have used their housing allowances to enhance their income, sometimes legally and sometimes not. Some analysts predict that only half of Britain’s MPs will be returned in next year’s election.

But, whatever the failures of particular British legislators, the issues go further than merely allowing voters to “throw the rascals out.” There is also a question of how successful leadership is taught and learned in a democracy. A successful democracy requires leadership to be widespread throughout government and civil society. Citizens who express concern about leadership need to learn not only how to judge it, but how to practice it themselves.

Many observers say that leadership is an art rather than a science. Good leadership is situational. In my book The Powers to Lead , I call this skill “contextual intelligence.” The ability to mobilize a group effectively is certainly an art rather than a predictive science, and varies with situations, but that does not mean that it cannot be profitably studied and learned.

Music and painting are based in part on innate skills, but also on training and practice. And artists can benefit not merely from studio courses, but also from art appreciation lessons that introduce them to the full repertoires and pallets of past masters.

Learning leadership occurs in a variety of ways. Learning from experience is the most common and most powerful. It produces the tacit knowledge that is crucial in a crisis. But experience and intuition can be supplemented by analytics, which is the purpose of my book. As Mark Twain once observed, a cat that sits on a hot stove will not sit on a hot stove again, but it won’t sit on a cold one, either.

Consequently, learning to analyze situations and contexts is an important leadership skill. The United States Army categorizes leadership learning under three words: “be, know, do.” “Be” refers to the shaping of character and values, and it comes partly from training and partly from experience. “Know” refers to analysis and skills, which can be trained. “Do” refers to action and requires both training and fieldwork. Most important, however, is experience and the emphasis on learning from mistakes and a continuous process that results from what the military calls “after-action reviews.”

Learning can also occur in the classroom, whether through case studies, historical and analytic approaches, or experiential teaching that simulates situations that train students to increase self-awareness, distinguish their roles from their selves, and use their selves as a barometer for understanding a larger group. Similarly, students can learn from the results of scientific studies, limited though they may be, and by studying the range of behaviors and contexts that historical episodes can illuminate.

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In practice, of course, few people occupy top positions in groups or organizations. Most people “lead from the middle.” Effective leadership from the middle often requires attracting and persuading those above, below, and beside you.

Indeed, leaders in the middle frequently find themselves in a policy vacuum, with few clear directives from the top. A passive follower keeps his head down, shuns risk, and avoids criticism. An opportunist uses the slack to feather his own nest rather than help the leader or the public.

Bureaucratic entrepreneurs, on the other hand, take advantage of such opportunities to adjust and promote policies. The key moral question is whether, and at what point, their entrepreneurial activity exceed the bounds of policies set from the top. Since they lack the legitimate authority of elected or high-level appointed officials, bureaucratic entrepreneurs must remain cognizant of the need to balance initiative with loyalty.

Leaders should encourage such entrepreneurship among their followers as a means of increasing their effectiveness. After all, the key to successful leadership is to surround oneself with good people, empower them by delegating authority, and then claim credit for their accomplishments.

To make this formula work, however, requires a good deal of soft power. Without the soft power that produces attraction and loyalty to the leader’s goals, entrepreneurs run off in all directions and dissipate a group’s energies. With soft power, however, the energy of empowered followers strengthens leaders.

Leadership is broadly distributed throughout healthy democracies, and all citizens need to learn more about what makes good and bad leaders. Potential leaders, in turn, can learn more about the sources and limits of the soft-power skills of emotional IQ, vision, and communication, as well as hard-power political and organizational skills.

They must also better understand the nature of the contextual intelligence they will need to educate their hunches and sustain strategies of smart power. Most important, in today’s age of globalization, revolutionary information technology, and broadened participation, citizens in democracies must learn more about the nature and limits of the new demands on leadership.

Copyright Project Syndicate – 2012

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