Saturday, June 07, 2014

Is Leadership Teaching an Oxymoron?

I teach leadership. I am not sure leadership can be taught.

Semantics aside - I know all that facilitating stuff as opposed to teaching - the question I am really interested in if one can really 'make' leaders through a series of classroom conversations.

Some of my colleagues will argue that it should be a series of projects or activities rather than classroom conversations. I am no big fan of the kind of unambitious projects that people usually set up in context of business courses: Review your company's mission statement! I would tend to think those are worse devices than classroom conversations. And, in any case, whatever the method, how does one teach leadership?

I am not taking the position that leadership can't be learnt, though! There are born leaders, but the leaders are only born and not made is a fallacious theory: We all know one or two people who were born to be leaders, but were never made. Whether or not leaders are born that way, they have to be made and there is a role of learning in leadership. 

My point is whether I can teach it. And, how I can teach this? Imagine the situation: A group of international students, who have been mandated to stay in a classroom for at least 15 hours a week, in a gloomy classroom - is that the best setting for making leaders? The whole setting is so very patronising and so immaculately counter-productive that it would be comic if this was not so soul-crushing. One can easily hide behind business theories and perhaps create an illusion of meaningfulness by reciting Porter's Five Forces, for example, but soon one will return to the hard reality of pointlessness.

Indeed, there is a big question and small question here. The small question is whether one can teach leadership in the real context that I am having to do it, of mostly uninterested faces, unimaginative setting and uninspired conversations? In fact, a strategy emerges in those settings: One does it for those few who are interested. In those classrooms, leaders show up among the crowd, and then one is teaching, even if slightly unfairly, for those few who show initiative, courage and interest. But while the small question is easier to answer, the big question - whether leadership can be taught and whether the colleges should attempt to do so - is more difficult to talk about. By the very act of setting up a leadership 'course', one limit the idea of leadership and attract a certain set of people who thought leadership is a thing that can be acquired in a classroom. That is, the theory here is detrimental to practice!

Yet, the challenge then is how to facilitate those leaders who would be unmade otherwise? The reflective conversations, the safe setting among friends, the ability to study and talk, and dare I say this, go beyond the confines of Business theories and discover the magic of liberal thinking, are useful tools to unleash the leaders. Indeed, one would automatically visualise an open setting, full of connections and conversations, for this, and surely not the joyless boundaries of an uninspiring institution. One would need creativity and not structure, commitment and not mere attendance, and experience and not just certification, for the leaders to be brought to life. So, in a way, practice can unleash the theory, provided the practice is based on more imagination and not the commercial skullduggery that contemporary educational institutions practice. The answer to my question is perhaps that leadership can be and should be taught, but not by those who claim to teach, not the way we are used to teaching it.


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