learn lead

Leadership Can Be Taught, But Not Everyone Wants to Learn

Often the question is asked: can leadership be taught or is it a character trait that is inborn? The vast majority of the responses tell us that leadership cannot be taught. However, those same people will almost certainly say that math can be taught or languages can be taught or good behavior in children can be taught. What gives?

What is so special about leadership that “it” cannot be taught? Is it so difficult to understand that only a chosen few can grasp the enormous complexity of it all? And you say math can be taught? Well, I can tell you this from experience, I don’t think anyone can learn multivariate regression. I studied it in college and don’t even know how I got through the class. Nope, can’t be learned. I think you are born with it … you either know statistics or you do not.

The fact is, I could learn multivariate regression, if I studied it, practiced it, and studied it regularly. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells the reader that one cannot learn to be a great writer. He says that if you are a bad writer, you can learn to be a good writer through hard work, practice and experience, but one cannot learn to be a great writer. It’s just plain in you.

Burning Desire or Passing Interest?

King gives a good example of his son wanting to learn a musical instrument. He bought the instrument, signed his son up for lessons and watched him practice exactly the amount of time his teacher told him to practice. No more. No less. It was then that King knew his son would never be a great musician, because a great musician would have been practicing at every spare moment he had — not just the prescribed 30 minutes per day. Of course, the child gave up music lessons in time.

He did not have a burning desire or anything beyond a passing interest in learning music. It was not because the child wasn’t smart enough or had any physical condition that prevented him from using his hands, arms or windpipes to play the instrument properly. He was perfectly capable of using the instrument.

It was his desire. It was not there.

And so it is with leadership. While not everyone can learn to be a leader, it is not because leadership cannot be taught or learned. It can. It’s because some people do not have a desire to learn what it takes to be a leader.

What does this mean for executives and business owners who want to develop leaders to help fuel growth in their organizations? We need to somehow figure out a way to select people who want to be leaders, instead of forcing them to attend mandatory leadership training. In the end, it’s up to each individual manager to learn to be a better leader. Too often, we send our managers to leadership training and never think twice about whether they are interested in learning these skills — whether they have a burning desire to be a better leader. If we can find people who want to be leaders and set up an environment in which managers want to learn the necessary techniques, we will have much more success training people to be better leaders.

What do you think? Can leadership be taught? Why or why not?

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Bill Cushard, Chief Learning Officer at The Knowland Group, is a learning leader with more than 12 years experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

Bill Cushard


  1. Rob Hill

    Excellent article Bill. When I joined the Navy I wanted to be a leader. Looking back, I just wanted to be in control and I have since learned the difference. I still desire to be a leader and believe that through hard work and maintaining values, I will. Leadership can be taught to anyone who wants to learn and realizes that it is not about controlling, it is about inspiring.

  2. Rob,

    Yes, I believe you will.


  3. Bill,
    In all my work on talent management I keep coming back to the core components of success – 1. the person must be intrinsically good at what is required (hardwired) and 2. must be passionate about doing it. Geoff Colvin wrote a book, “Talent is Overrated” and his perspective is that deliberative practice (not talents) is how people get good at things. My work supports that deliberative practice happens because of the energy, passion and interest to do the work (talent/passion required). If a leader has no passionate drive to be a leader, then he doesn’t commit the requisite energy and effort to learn, internalize and become proficient. Passion has a significant influence on drive, and drive guides learning and skill improvement. So, though there may be leadership courses (and they are effective with those who are interested in being a leader), they also don’t significantly improve those who don’t really want it. Just a thought…

  4. Jay,

    Couldn’t agree more that deliberate practice is how people become good/great at anything. And there must be a desire to “want to” practice like that.

    Doesn’t it just always come down to good old-fashioned hard work?


  5. Jeff Davis

    I’m going to go out on a limb and agree with both of you — how’s that for un-bold leadership 😉 — and add an additional question: How can small businesses instill the right regimens and processes (and training programs where appropriate) that help groom potential leaders at the earliest stage? What’s an example of a small, successful company that does this well?

  6. Jeff,

    That is the question, what are examples of small successful companies that develop leaders well? I don’t have an answer for that. However, speaking as a leader in a small business (we are less than 70 employees), we do not have the time or resources to build and deliver a formal leadership development program curriculum. We have to think more practically about how to develop leaders.

    For us it starts with identifying people who we think have potential and talking with them openly about developing leadership interest and skill. Next it about exposing people to various work experiences. Finally for training, we look for find content that is already out there rather than reinvent the wheel or buy expensive materials. Books, case studies, YouTube videos of leadership author interviews can work great with the right design.

    There are so many ways to do it. Frankly, I wish I did have more examples.

    Does anyone else out there have examples for small businesses that develop people well?

    Great questions Jeff.


  7. poorleader

    The burining desire to do something is something i’ve never had.So there is not much chance of me being a leader and each time leadership is thrust upon me i realize just how weak and imperfect i am for the post and makes me want to cry(another sign of my weakness). Do you think i can be a leader?

Trackbacks for this post

  1. […] B (2011). Leadership Can be Taught, But Not Everyone Wants to Learn. Mindflash. http://www.mindflash.com/blog/2011/05/leadership-can-be-taught-but-not-everyone-wants-to-learn/ retrieved 4 November […]

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