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ATD Blog

Leadership Can’t Be Taught, but It Can Be Learned!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

There is a debate in business and academic circles around how leaders are made. This goes beyond the age-old question of whether leaders are made or born. I think that has been answered a long time ago: leaders are made, not born. 

I have a strong point of view on this topic after more than 35 years of working with CEOs and senior executives across the globe. Teaching leadership to a class of students, or even giving a seminar on leadership to executives, is about as effective in developing leaders as reading a cookbook would be in developing chefs. It’s not just the information, but it’s also the doing that develops skills—and being a leader demands a specific skill set, just as being a chef does. 

Listening to an entertaining and informative lecture, or even reading one of the many books on leadership, does not develop leadership skills. It fills the head with good information, but not skills. We will know more about leadership, but we can’t be a leader with information alone. 

That’s why I believe leadership can’t be taught, but it can be learned. And learning leadership is akin to learning any other skill. Beyond knowledge of the subject, there must be the appetite to be a leader and the courage to act in accordance with the principles of leadership. Too many people attend a course on leadership or an executive seminar on leadership taught by some of the best-known leaders and walk out the door more informed, but not more committed to being a leader. They wind up with clever quotes and examples, yet still avoid putting themselves in situations that call for real leadership.

Becoming a Leader

For those with the courage and commitment to being a leader, very little teaching is required. They learn by doing; through experience, not words. They are the ones who volunteer for all the crappy jobs inside the company. They join the teams trying to solve the biggest problems. They take on the assignment of cleaning up a troubled division. They don’t stop at going to a leadership seminar, assuming they now have what it takes; they go to work. They watch other leaders face difficult situations and they internalize those lessons. Do they always win? Nope. Do they always learn something invaluable about leadership and themselves? Absolutely. Do they grow their leadership “muscles”? Definitely. 


Don’t just read a book or go to a seminar; let your life’s work be the book that someone else reads and the seminar others attend. 

Let’s look at some very famous and well-respected leaders. I think there would be pretty much unanimous agreement that the following individuals displayed great courage and positive leadership:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Martin Luther King
  • Mother Teresa
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Winston Churchill. 

So, my question is very simple. What leadership class did they take? Did they attend a seminar on leadership? Did they go to the World Business Forum in New York City and listen to Jack Welch or Jim Collins? Did they read The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership or any of the many popular books on leadership found on the Amazon bestseller list? 


Obviously not. They weren’t taught leadership in a classroom or a seminar. They learned it through experience. How? By reading history books and stories about great leadership in the past, by having a cause that was bigger than their own needs, by putting themselves in harm’s way and wading into the issues others avoided, and by having faith in themselves, their vision, and other people. 

My advice to those seeking to develop greater leadership skills: don’t rely only on the classroom of seminars and workshops. Instead, get out into the world. Find a big problem and volunteer to fix it. Take on the worst assignments at work. Study great leaders—read about them. Don’t just blindly follow the information passed out by professors and leadership gurus; do your own homework. Leadership can be learned, if you have the courage and commitment.

Check out similar articles: Listening Is the Secret Weapon of Good Leaders

About the Author

John R. Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership teams. He is an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. Learn more at 

1 Comment
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I believe its a BOTH, AND. New leaders (and even experienced leaders) will absolutely benefit from attending workshops and conferences and reading how-to-lead books to learn about strategies, tools, etc. that will embolden them to go into the arena of leadership more confidently. Jack Welch and Jim Collins did write their life's leadership lessons that millions of other people are reading...the same advice you're recommending in your article. ACTION is critical to leadership success!
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