Can You Teach Leadership? — NO.

No. There, I said it. You cannot teach leadership. I know you just paid a lot of money for your leadership development program. Don’t worry, 15 billion was spent last year, so chances are, you are not alone. But the sad reality is, for many of the people spending this money, the outcome they are looking for will not be what they receive.

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The problem has to do with the question itself. Most of the time, and I would argue perhaps all of the time, when people ask if you can teach leadership development, they are not asking about teaching at all.

As a former teacher, I can confidently say that, with enough time, I could teach just about anyone the concepts of leadership. I could have them answer test questions successfully, write compelling essays, and even give a great presentation on the topic. Technically, they would have been “taught” leadership.

But that is not what people mean when they ask the question. When people ask if you can “teach leadership” the question has little to do with “teaching” and much more to do with behavior change. And this is why the answer to, “can you teach leadership?” must be no. Unless, that is, we simply want to have a standardized test people pass, a certification to achieve, or a formal application process to prove someone has been “taught” leadership.

When I was a teacher, I taught in a juvenile corrections facility working specifically in a chemical dependency unit. From this experience, I can also confidently tell you that a person can have all the knowledge in the world about a subject and fail miserably at the application. Smokers “know” the effects of smoking, but fail to put the cigarette out. People know they need to get a full 8 hours of sleep but suck at getting to bed before midnight. And, I know that beer and  bacon should not be dietary staples, but that does not change what ends up in my fridge weekly.

To apply a learned concept is different than simply learning. And to create lasting behavioral change, which is what people are really looking for in leadership, is an entirely different approach. It may include teaching, but it also includes a number of equally important components.

True behavior change requires a clear personal reason (motivation – underlying WHY etc.), consistent practice (building new habits), feedback loops (positive and negative), and a desire for self-awareness to name just a few of the basics. Behavior change is a tougher code to crack. It rarely, if ever, happens in a one day workshop. It requires elements of support, structure, personal ability and time.

Now, if I am wrong and what you mean when you say teaching leadership IS about taking a test, then keep moving, nothing to see here. But, if what you are looking for is about creating new habits and behaviors, then I encourage you to reconsider the question. NO, you cannot teach leadership, you can only apply it. And application requires an entirely different approach.

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