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Is Leadership a Skill That Can Be Taught or Is It an Innate Ability That Only Few Can Possess?

According to Stogdill (1974), there are multiple definitions of leadership. In earlier research, leadership has been defined as the ability to create a shared vision that others are inspired to follow (Drucker, 1959). Earlier theorists also indicate that leadership is in fact a behaviour rather than a unique ability(Hemphill and Coons, 1957). More contemporary theorists however, have defined leadership as the ability to influence followers towards a shared goal or vision (Northouse, 2015). The age old question ‘is leadership innate or can it be taught?’, has been argued for centuries. With leadership becoming an increasingly hot topic in organisations, it is no wonder that leaders and managers alike are starting to realise the gravity of its role in not only driving a business forward and influencing staff toward shared goals, but by being the main contributor to an organisation’s overall survival (Kaiser, Hogan and Craig, 2008). Nothing is more prevalent at the moment than Britain exiting the European Union (Brexit) and the impact this is having on organisations on a global scale. Should the importance of leadership not be addressed, organisations will find it increasingly difficult to navigate the unchartered waters of Brexit successfully, impacting on an array of different variables across the organisation as a whole. Therefore, it is an arguable necessity to explore whether or not leadership is indeed innate, or if and how it maybe taught in order to develop the skills of individuals further to ensure organisations have great leaders in place at their forefront. The author will therefore aim to compare and contrast earlier research with more contemporary research in order to prove or disprove the question, is leadership a skill that can be taught or is it an innate ability that only a few can possess? Methods of leadership development such as coaching and teaching will be briefly touched upon in order to establish how leadership might be taught. Similarly, the author will briefly explore some theories pertaining to effective leadership in order to establish what it is that would need to be taught in order for someone to be deemed as a ‘leader’. The author will also address and identify other relevant strands of research should they emerge in order to draw appropriate conclusions and to act as a sign post for further potential research in the future.

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Research popularised by Carlyle (1907) in the early nineteenth century points to the argument that great leaders are in fact born, not made. Also known as the great man theory, this particular theory is centralised around the idea of leaders being born with more innate personality traits. Characteristics such as heroism and intelligence are the primary characteristics underpinning this theory and arguably contribute to a leader being ‘great’ and more effective through genetics. Results from a study conducted by Galton (1809) in the earlier twentieth century, support the great man theory by illustrating that great leaders do in fact possess innate qualities that influence their ability to lead. Woods (1913) was inspired by the study and also supported the great man theory, provoking him to explore leadership as a birth right through reigning monarchs throughout history. Challenging these views, Spencer (1889) contested that leaders are in fact a product of society and their effectiveness is measured by how they react and develop from social situations as opposed to being born with such traits. Goleman (2000) on the other hand argues that effective leadership should not be measured by traits, however builds upon Spencer’s view that effectiveness should be measured by how leaders react to situations and more specifically, six styles of leadership; affiliative, democratic, coercive, pace setting, visionary and coaching. Rejecting Goleman’s theory however, a number of recent studies have demonstrated that personality traits do have a role in attributing to the effectiveness of leaders. The theorists assert that personality traits should not just be used in isolation, highlighting that it is not a case of either or, but perhaps a culmination of factors that contribute to effective leadership (Zaccaro, Kemp and Bader, 2004).

Building upon Spencer’s ideology further, theorists throughout the centuries have also disputed the great man theory. In fact, the overall concept of the great man theory seems to have been left behind as there has been an emergence in literature in more contemporary research which suggests that leadership is a skill that can in fact be taught. The idea of teaching leadership can perhaps be seen to fall directly under the umbrella of leadership development and over time a wide range of academics have argued the methods in which leadership can be taught in order to aid development. Developed by Burns(1978), the Transformational  leadership approach  consists of its own particular traits which deem this approach as successful. This non-traditional approach to leadership is largely centralised around the transformation of its followers through traits such as charisma, confidence, creativity, influence and even intelligence (Yukl, 1999;Rafferty and Griffin, 2004). Advocates of the transformational leadership approach, Bass and Avolio (1990), suggest that this particular approach to leadership can in fact be taught. They assert that teaching is the process of transferring knowledge, thus leaders who have no awareness of the subject can therefore learn it and with the right teaching and training, individuals can learn how to become great leaders. Supporting their argument is perhaps the abundance of growing leadership training courses and qualifications available to access across the globe. Drawing upon the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) as an example, they deliver a wide range of leadership courses to individuals in a variety of fashions including e-learning, distance learning and face to face training and workshops. They quote that 93%[1] of employers registered with their services have said that their leaders and managers have performed better after undertaking their qualifications, suggesting that perhaps leadership can indeed be taught. Opposing this view, Parks (2005) warns that the danger of undertaking such leadership courses sets the precedent that there are set assumptions and ‘rules’ that leaders must follow in order to become effective leaders rather than developing through a more natural state. This implies that leadership in itself is quite complex and perhaps more an individual learning journey rather than a methodical process.

Mole (2004) on the other hand, offers a completely different view altogether. He argues that if you were going to try to teach leadership, then you would have to know a great deal about not only the leader as an individual, but their followers within the particular leadership arena you are working in. Rather than explicitly being taught, Mole (2004) expands upon this view by suggesting the perception should not be whether or not leadership can be taught, but whether or not leadership can be learned through a continuous interaction between a leader and their followers, implying that perhaps rather than leadership being deemed as a ‘skill’, it is in fact a learned behaviour as Hemphill and Coons (1957) previously stated. Linking with this perspective, are the views of Bennis (1989). His belief is that rather than being taught, leadership can be learned through a combination of self-expression, self-awareness and learning through society, hinting at support of Spencer’s (1889) aforementioned theory. Whilst the theorists seemed to have bridged the gap of the essay question being ‘black and white’ by creating a ‘grey area’ of discussion, what seems to be missing from the theories is human motivation. Whether it be teaching or learning, Gunn (2000) surmises that the idea of teaching leadership would indeed imply that an individual would want to learn it. Parks (2005) also states that leadership can be taught, should the individual have the desire to learn it, supporting their earlier theory of leadership being more about an individual learning journey. Interestingly however, like Goleman (2000), Bennis(1989) further argues that leaders can develop and become effective leaders through coaching. Coaching has been more popularly defined as a process whereby a coach assists a coachee to unlock their potential in order to maximise their performance (Whitmore, 2003). Bennis (1989) favours this process as opposed to teaching as it encourages individuals to seek answers from within, which interestingly suggests that perhaps there are similarities between his view and the great man theory whereby there are certain innate personality traits one is already in possession ofwhen it comes to leadership.

Whilst the subject of personality traits deserves the spotlight in its own right, the author feels it is necessary to briefly explore this emerging strand of research as it may support in proving or disproving if such traits are in fact innate or developed socially. Earlier research undertaken by Adler (1927) suggests that traits are not inherited and like Spencer’s (1889) theory, he argues that traits are developed through social experience. More recent research however has discovered that whilst this might be partly true, some emotional traits may in fact be inherited (Agnew et al., 2002). Backing this sentiment, Buss and Plomin (2014) also suggest that some emotional personality traits are in fact inherited through genetics, however they assert that early years development is the most crucial aspect of shaping individual personality traits, thus implying that core personality traits are developed and indeed learned from a young age giving lend to the fact that perhaps leadership can be learned as long as there is a desire to learn it. (Gunn,2000; Parks, 2005).

In conclusion, given the fairly broad nature of what makes an effective leader going by the vast array of traits and styles, it could therefore be argued sufficiently that in support of the viewpoints of Bennis (1989) and Mole (2004) it would perhaps make more sense that leadership generically cannot be taught, but rather become a learned behaviour. A leader who may lack confidence in some areas may struggle to be ‘taught how’, but may learn from either a positive role model or benefit from coaching or other forms of dyadic learning. It could also be concluded from this viewpoint that most people do have access to such traits and it is the method of unearthing them that is important. This neither disproves or proves the ‘is leadership innate or can it be taught’ question, as reflecting on the literature discussed, it would depend on a variety of different factors, such as traits developed in early years, social experience and the discovery of inheritable traits or indeed a culmination of a variety of different factors like Zaccaro, Kemp and Bader (2004) suggested. Furthermore, given the conflicting views of Alder (1927) and Buss and Plomin (2014) and the lack of empirical research surrounding innate and ‘genetic personality traits’, it demonstrates to the author that perhaps the essay question is not so black and white. What is apparent is the need for greater and more in depth future research on topics such as genetics and whether or not a great leader should be measured by such traits or a wide range of factors. Therefore, the author cannot conclude concretely that leadership can be taught as this would be dependent on the individual and their particular learning style. Returning to the beginning of the essay and the complexities around Brexit, this does not mean that there is a leadership crisis looming, but more creates opportunities for organisations to discover what works best for them. The organisation may need a cultural change or new methods of learning can be explored in order to develop their leaders further, creating an environment that fosters innovation and development and perhaps resulting in a more efficient workforce.

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It also cannot be disputed nor dismissed that ILM have had some success in the teaching area, however it is unclear from the results as to what method of teaching or learning the employees were exposed to. What has emerged from the literature however, is that it would be more likely that leadership can be learned as a behaviour, in support of which is the vast amount of literature surrounding an individual’s ability to learn through social experiences and the environment, thus creating a paradigm, prompting further research in to the ideology that not only can a leader be influenced by their environment, but the environment can also be influenced by the leader.


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[1] https://www.i-l-m.com/news-and-events/Information-for-media/Research


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