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.

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