Why You Can’t Teach Leadership


Leadership is a complex term. There are many different types of leaders. For example, you can be a thought leader, you can be a leader by authority, you can be a leader in business by creating valuable products, or you can be a leader of people.

Leading people is one of the most difficult types of leadership, but can be crucial for success in business. Being a leader is the ability to influence the direction of people towards the achievement of a common goal. It’s not something that you learn, and it’s not something that you acquire. Being a leader is the result of a binary relationship between the followers and the individual that emerges as a leader. There is an implicit contract that takes place. Something about that individual, the leader, triggers a response in the individuals that follow him or her that allows the relationship to occur.

Let me give you a personal example.

A few years ago, I decided to go on an Outward Bound backpacking trip for three weeks. I was the oldest guy in the group. They even asked me to give them a doctor’s authorization for me to go because they thought I was not going to make it—even though I was in pretty good shape. When the trip got started, there were two women who were designated as the leaders—assigned by the organization. However, during the trip, for some reason, I emerged as the leader. Not intentionally; it just happened. In fact, the two assigned leaders recognized this and approached me to help them lead the trip. I ended up being the leader—not the formal leader—but the informal leader. Why? There was something that happened between me and the other people on the trip that caused them to look to me for leadership. At the end of the trip, our group discussed this. They said they felt that I was trustworthy, that I offered my perspective in a nonthreatening or challenging way, and that I had the right type of energy. I don’t know what is was, but I emerged as the leader during that trip.

Leadership is often contextual. In different situations, different leaders emerge. Think about the leader of a gang in Tijuana versus the leader of an organization that provides healthcare. Both are leaders, but they are completely different and their competencies are different.

When I hear people talking about “The Five Principles of Highly Effective Leaders,” I think, based on what? Those are a fundamentally and culturally defined set of assumptions. More specifically, defined by a set of democratic assumptions (equality, democracy). Those principles may not have any resonance in other cultures or in specific types of organizations.

The terms “leadership” and “leadership development” are not very well defined. I don’t think there can be a clear definition. I believe it’s all contextual. It’s all about who the leader is, and what brings that person into a position where people recognize him or her as the leader and subsequently follow them. It’s very much an implicit relationship—it’s not necessarily explicit. There’s a connection and a chemistry between the emerging leader and the followers that allows that person to become a good leader.

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