How Can You Learn Leadership?

How did you learn to be a leader? Most of us have people we learned from, teachers and mentors. These key people in our lives offer help to us both as we begin to lead, and along the way. I’ve been thinking about two important aspects of leadership: skill and self. How do these get communicated to people who are learning to lead?

The first aspect, skill, is the technique of leadership. It may be more rightly called the technique of management. In fact, we could talk about a number of skills involved in leading. If you supervise people, you need to learn to carry out a performance review. Most leaders need to know how to get up in front of a group and speak effectively. You need to know how to run a meeting. You can work on any of these skills for a lifetime. I’m part of a Toastmasters club, where I keep working on developing my speaking skills, even though I’ve been speaking for over 25 years.

Still, skill in the nuts and bolts of leadership is not enough. “Ten Ways to Be an Effective Leader” will not make you an effective leader. There’s another important aspect, one that is harder to teach and harder to learn. This is about self: leading out of who you are. Having a self is not selfish, because the gift you give to others comes out of the deepest part of who you are.

Other leaders can show the way by being themselves. Yet no one can teach you how to be yourself. You can learn, over time, but no one else really knows you. Having a self means you can resist pressure to conform while still being flexible. You can take a stand without shooting yourself in the foot, because you respect others while you do so. You can manage your own emotional life, since you are mature enough to recognize your feelings without being controlled by them. Perhaps it is better to say “self” in leaders can be cultivated but not taught. My best mentors have asked me great questions to help me discern who I am as a leader. They have helped me think through my own most important beliefs and principles. They have often shared their own wisdom and experience. Still, they haven’t assumed their approach would work for me. They have seen more in me than I saw in myself.

Skill means knowing how to do certain things. Self means knowing how to be yourself when you do them. One of my ministerial colleagues also coached high school football. And he led his congregation like a coach: tough and challenging. They responded, and the church was thriving. Another leader I know is quiet and mild-mannered. He effectively leads an organization with a multi-million-dollar budget. Both of these leaders lead out of themselves. They have led their organizations for years.

I’ve found it takes less energy to lead out of myself, out of the core of who I am, rather than trying to become something I’m not. Plenty of models for leadership exist, and volumes have been written suggesting, “lead like me.” We can learn important leadership skills from others. Still, we learn how to be ourselves not by imitating others but by discovering, over time, our unique identity.

4 replies on “How Can You Learn Leadership?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    If someone is in a leadership position, it’s very important from them and for everyone else that they fully occupy their role. There’s no escaping some elements of the role that may make us uncomfortable. I do believe as we grow more fully into ourselves, our repertoire increases.

  • Jan Nesse

    I think you have captured the essence of what it means to be leading from your authentic self. I puzzle over people in leadership positions who use the phrase “that isn’t my style” or “that’s not me” when they are really abdicating leadership and/or management. I think that knowing the skills is one thing but without reflection on how they might be applied in different ways is nonintegrative. But to eschew the tools because of a comfort level with a non leadership “style” is not to lead.

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Betty, thanks for this thoughtful comment. That phrase, “less anxious, more compassionate leader” is one I’ll remember. I do think this is a lifelong process, and it’s often two steps forward and one step back. But over time, we discover our unique identity more fully.

  • Betty Johnson

    Another timely post. Thanks. I was particularly intriqued with your comment in this article about the leaders/mentors who see more in you than you see in yourself. I find that true as well and am often surprised at the things my peer group/learning cluster say they see in me that can be developed and/or improved. I am reading a book now by George Barna (2002) which was recently given to me “When Leadership Becomes a Struggle, You feel Like A Fish Out of Water.” One whole chapter of the book suggests that if we, as leaders, want good followers (who doesn’t!) we need to create them. I’m finding that chapter the most enlightening and also the most challenging. He says, “Build the environment that you would want to work within if you were not in charge. Then remember: You are in charge; you can create the environment you desire.” I think that statement may be a key to what you suggest in leading out of oneself. The core of who we are will be more able to create the environment in which we would want to work if we were not the leaders. If we try to create an environment that is other than ourselves, both leader and followers end up frustrated and struggling because the “shoe doesn’t fit.”
    I also appreciated your comments about the “self” being able to be flexible while still taking a stand so that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s certainly a tough one for me coming from a strong corporate world where we barked orders and expected results. But when I intentionally couple my “unique identity” with God’s unique vision for my life personally, I discover a less anxious, more compassionate leader deep within me. One of those areas that definitely needs developing/maturing. I often wonder if there are parts of me at different times that are always trying to be something I’m not. But maybe that is development of “self” or God’s leading/vision, rather than force-fitting the “other” on us? Blessings!


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