One of the questions I am frequently asked by executives and Kellogg students is “Can leadership be taught?” Sometimes the question is also phrased as “Are leaders born or developed?” or “Does leadership come from nature or nurture?” So let’s talk about it!

Ask Harry #5: Can leadership be taught?

I try to approach the topic with both humor and seriousness. From a humor perspective, I respond: ”If leadership cannot be taught, why am I spending so much time trying to teach leadership?” (This usually causes people to at least think about the question 😉).

Okay, now for some serious OPINIONS. To put the topic in perspective, I believe the process of becoming a leader is a journey, not a destination. Just because someone has people reporting to them does not make them a leader. Maybe one can say they are in a leadership position, but that doesn’t make them a leader. I believe that every day we are on this earth we have the opportunity to become better leaders. Some days we improve and other days we don’t.

Okay, so if leadership is a journey, where do we start the journey? Here’s where there can be wide differentiation. Some people start with a lot of natural ability and others start with very little. However, I believe EVERYONE can improve. That doesn’t mean everyone has the same potential or will reach the same level of leadership skill. The key is for each of us to move in the direction of our FULL POTENTIAL.

This is why the process of SELF REFLECTION is so important, to take the time to become self-aware, to understand where we are today, and what we need to do to move in the direction of our full potential. And of course, we cannot do this all by ourselves. This is why studying and building strong relationships with colleagues, partners, mentors and sponsors is so important. Key to the process of becoming a stronger leader is leadership development and talent management. I usually summarize it in one word, FEEDBACK. Let me be clear. I am not talking about a once-a-year human resource form, or a friendly chat along the lines of “Keep up the good work” or “Would you like some feedback? Well just keep doing what you are doing.” It is hard to improve if you just keep doing what you are already doing 😉.

Rather, by FEEDBACK, I mean an open, honest, continuous, transparent dialogue that enables the individual to understand both their strengths and weaknesses. By the way, if you are wondering if you are good at providing feedback, there is a very easy way to determine the answer. If you are good at providing feedback, you will never surprise the person receiving the feedback. By the time you sit down for their annual review, there is nothing you will need to discuss with the individual that you haven’t already discussed numerous times during the year. Why should anyone ever be surprised?

At Baxter we used to describe FEEDBACK as a gift. How can someone improve and move in the direction of their full potential if they don’t receive open, honest, continuous, transparent feedback? I often recall that one of the human resource managers would show up in my office with a beautiful Tiffany box and put it in the middle of my desk. There was nothing in the box, but I was certainly going to receive the “gift of feedback.” 😊

One last thought: We shouldn’t think of the leadership journey and feedback as looking back at what we did wrong. The goal is to focus on improving as we look to the future. That’s why maybe we shouldn’t even call it feedback. I like the term that Marshall Goldsmith, the leadership coach uses: instead of FEEDBACK, he calls it “FEEDFORWARD.”

I will stop here so you can spend less time reading this post and spend more time reflecting on what you believe is your full potential and what you can do with the “gift of feedback” — and “feedforward” to progress toward your full potential!!!


Illustration by Mike Werner