Can You Train Leaders? Or Are They 'Born'?

We often think of leadership as an inherent trait, something you either have or you don’t. The phrase “born leader” comes to mind. At the same time organizations, from businesses to political entities to sports teams, are often lacking in leadership.

Even if a “natural” leader is readily available in one of these settings, does he or she possess the necessary skills to fulfill the requirements of the job? The challenge of finding someone who not only is a leader but also possesses the skills, knowledge, and experience to take on key roles in organizations has led to a significant interest in leadership training.
The crucial questions here are 1) how effective is leadership training at creating leaders from “non-leaders,” and 2) what are the key components of such a training?

Identifying Potential Leaders

While you don’t necessarily need to be a “born leader,” some individuals are more predisposed to leadership roles—and leadership training—than others. This certainly doesn’t mean there are employees who shouldn’t be considered for leadership training. But that conversation must happen. As Karen Tiber Leland writes for Inc.com, “In an ideal world, every manager in your business would be knocking down your door begging for personal development. While this does occasionally happen, it’s not the norm. However, given the opportunity, many managers will find the idea of an executive development program exciting. For those who don’t, forcing them to participate will likely backfire and create even more resistance.”

Effectiveness of Leadership Training

It’s important to be very critical when evaluating potential leadership training initiatives. The results of such programs can be hard to measure, and many organizations have felt frustrated at what they see as a lack of tangible results. As Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader write for Harvard Business Review, “Senior executives and their HR teams continue to pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But what they actually need is a new way of thinking about learning and development. Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organizational design and managerial processes first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching and classroom or online education.”

What Makes an Effective Leadership Program?

“Fluffy” leadership programs that focus on general concepts like being a good listener, inspiring change, etc., should be avoided. There is no standard model of leader. Leaders can be introverts, extroverts, imaginative, practical, decisive, patient, etc. An effective leadership program will necessarily work with individual leaders and be individually focused to ensure the best results for each participant.
To be successful, any organization needs strong leaders. Unfortunately, leadership doesn’t necessarily flow naturally from general knowledge, experience, or aptitude. Leadership training can help develop qualified and respected employees into successful leaders, but caution must be exercised, and any potential leadership program should be closely scrutinized to ensure it’s worth the expense.