Management for the masses: Can leadership be taught?

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10For many years, scholars believed that leadership wasn’t something that you did…a leader was something that you were. They studied leaders to identify the traits that gave them that innate, often indescribable ability to compel others to act. Many of them romanticized the idea of a special gift bestowed on a few individuals that allowed them to “rise above” others and lead them.

Luckily, the study of leadership has evolved. Now, we examine leaders’ behaviors, and even the actions of their followers, and prescribe ways that people can be more or less effective in motivating and guiding others. But the question of how best to impart this knowledge to a new generation remains a challenge. What is the best way to teach people to become leaders?

A recent study compared two methods and came up with some compelling results. Business students in two different classes were compared on a number of leadership skills before and after completing their coursework. Those whose course contained specific behavior modeling techniques demonstrated both an increased skill at leading, but the researchers found another interesting finding as well. Students who had experienced behavior modeling training also reported a higher desire to act as leaders. We call this phenomenon “motivation to lead.”

Behavior modeling is a relatively simple technique. Students are first presented with a key principle of good leadership (say, for example, effectively coaching employees). They are then presented with an example, usually though video, of someone demonstrating the behavior. Students then discuss and reflect upon what the person in the video did, how it was (or was not) a good example of the principle, and how that principle might be exhibited in other situations. Students also learn a great deal from interacting with the model to learn about how he/she interpreted the situation and why they made particular choices. Role plays, cases, or other interactive teaching techniques are then used to reinforce student learning.

Organizations that wish to develop leaders could benefit from highlighting the effective behaviors of supervisors within their own organizations. Short videos portraying good leadership from role models in the company, such as founders or other high-level leaders, are a good way to make leadership lessons relevant. These need not be formal training interventions. Employees can simply view the videos before meeting with mentors, for example. The key is to provide concrete behavioral examples from real role models within the company that share the values of the organization.

Waldman, D. A., Galvin, B. M., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2012). The development of motivation to lead and leader role identity. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20, 156-168.