British business needs more good leaders. So say experienced leaders like ex-ICI boss Sir John Harvey-Jones. We all differ in terms of our potential for leadership, and natural potential can and should be allowed to flourish. But can leadership be taught to the rest of us?
The assumption that leaders are born and not made is simply not true, insists John Adair, author of Leadership Skills and visiting professor at the University of Exeter. Instead it is the learning attributes of the would-be leader that are vital. 'Nobody can teach you leadership,' he explains. 'It's something you have to learn for yourself by taking in what's going on around you.' Not everyone is capable, however. 'For a small percentage of people, however hard you try and train the person in leadership, that effort will be unrewarding,' he says. 'Rather like music. Some people will never be musical, however hard they practise.' Alan Hooper, a former Royal Marine and joint author of The Business of Leadership, believes that it takes a while to develop leadership potential fully. The real key to leadership training is time, says Hooper. 'There's no quick fix on leadership. The skills have to be developed over a period of years. People must first absorb new knowledge and then have time to reflect on it. The next stage of the learning cycle requires them to try out new ideas in the workplace. Finally they need time to reflect on those experiments with their peers.' To learn leadership, Hooper believes, requires listening skills and the opportunity to learn from one's mistakes. 'The reason the British military is so successful is that it constantly practises.
This allows people to analyse what they have done wrong and then improve procedures. In business, people don't feel they have this luxury.'
Peter Fairgrieve of the Centre for High Performance Development (CHPD) agrees that leadership qualities must be developed through a mix of theory and practice. 'We teach the essential theories of leadership and immediately ensure that delegates test their use in practice.
Leadership certainly can't be taught in the classroom. We all need to practise and make mistakes in a non-threatening environment,' he says.
Training is designed to allow managers to develop the necessary behaviours through coaching, feedback and practice. A series of outdoor exercises, for example, constitutes one of the organisation's experiential learning tools.
Learning how to increase the flexibility of one's leadership style is also becoming increasingly important, says Ken Brotherston, partner at consultants Korn Ferry International. 'Leadership is in transition,' he believes. 'Today, it is still paternalistic and involved in command and control. Tomorrow, it is expected to be entrepreneurial, driven by ideas, and able to share power, ideas and accountability.' The business leaders of the 21st century may have to learn new leadership approaches, agrees Tony Barnes, who runs leadership courses at the Institute of Directors. 'Leaders of tomorrow will have learned to help other employees be leaders themselves, rather than just telling them what to do.'.