How Much Training Do Leaders Need?

More than they’re getting, according to one expert. But these days, learning more theory will have to compete with the need to learn on the fly.

What kind of education do you need to become a leader? Depending on who you ask, the answer can range from a one-day seminar to an entire lifetime. In some ways, that’s good news. If there’s a robust economy around the business of leadership, that speaks to the importance of the role, and the hunger among workers to learn what it requires and how to put it into practice.

Leadership cannot be mastered overnight or on the job.

But Barbara Kellerman, who teaches leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School—and who’s a whole lot closer to the “entire lifetime” end of the spectrum—is skeptical about the value of all this chatter around leadership, and whether the term has become cheapened as a result. In her new book, Professionalizing Leadership, she delivers a few brickbats at the notion that leadership is easy and that its tools are easily accessible, bemoaning the “yawning gap between what the leadership industry claims to do, and what it does.”

Toward the end of the book, Kellerman lists what leadership education should do, and it recalls those comic scenes in movies where a poor worker’s in-box is filled with an ever-rising stack of manila folders. “Here is what we might take from the past and apply to the present,” she writes. “The idea that learning how to lead is learning theory and practice of supreme importance; the idea that learning how to lead ethically and effectively includes learning about its ubiquitous, obvious, obverse, leading that is unethical and ineffective; the idea that learning how to lead includes learning how to follow; and the idea that learning how to lead is a process that is continuous… Leadership is not an occupation—it is a profession.”

As that line and the book’s title implies, Kellerman is tubthumping for more rigorous structure for leadership education than a few webinars can provide. Last week, in one of a series of posts for her publisher’s website on the book, she argued that leadership deserves the same standardization that truck drivers or doctors require: “first, a careful course of study and second, credentialing before permission to practice.”

To that end, Kellerman isn’t much for the notion of on-the-job learning, at least not for a while. (“Leadership cannot be mastered overnight or on the job,” she writes in the book.) Rather, leaders should first be hunkering down with great writing on leadership, by which she means Lao Tzu and Machiavelli, not Drucker and Peters. After that, they can develop some core high-level leadership skills in matters like decision making and communication; gain some experience that looks less like “on the job” training and more like a lab-type process of self analysis; and then develop some bread-and-butter management skills about finance and marketing and such.

This is not, even Kellerman herself concedes, a wholly practical way of looking at leadership development in 2018. I also don’t think its entirely fair to the leadership community, which does so develop its own professional standards and credentials even if they’re not legally mandated. Few organizations have the time or patience—or even the need, really—to look for leaders who know their way around Hannah Arendt in advance of the marcomm strategy meeting. And the slow-rolling of usable experience for potential leaders is a potentially disastrous approach at organizations, which already have a hard enough time developing leadership candidates internally.

But Kellerman’s argument shouldn’t be dismissed as an overly conservative lament and a demand to raise the bar to an impossible level. Leadership has become democratized—has become a business—because the nature of work has become fractured and atomized to the point where just about anybody in the workplace requires some kind of leadership skills. Yes, that’s been exploited by plenty of self-appointed gurus who’ve built careers by wrapping a a colorful metaphor around a stack of HBR case studies, or who deliver go-get-’em bromides about how everybody can do it.

Not everybody can. Leadership is work, the kind of work that requires attention and develop, and it’s to Kellerman’s credit that she’s thrown the brakes for a moment to say it. “Let’s provide leadership learners with a good education,” she insists. It sounds like a no-brainer, but considering how few organizations clear the time for it, that’s a call worth heeding.

What has been critical to your education as a leader, and what does leadership training look like within your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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