Can leadership be taught?

Adrian Furnham

Here are eight keys for successful leadership training.

Can you turn a brilliant technical person into a competent, inspirational leader?

This is a simple question but one which has exercised many in business, most of all those responsible for helping select, promote and assess leaders, as well as those who work out costs and return-on-investment.

Enthusiasts believe leadership, like anything else, is perfectly learnable and trainable. Sceptics, meanwhile, believe more in the idea of “what you see is what you get” and that management training is a waste of money.

This is what the research literature suggests:

Use multiple delivery methods

This is always a good idea, e.g., lectures, discussions, videos, games, and so on. But do not get too gimmicky and do not expect the delegates to do all the work. A nice, well thought through combination of chalk-and-talk, individual assessment and group exercises goes a long way.

The trouble is trainers have their personal preferences: some think you can drone on with Powerpoint, others that is best taught in muddy fields. Some put people into groups to discuss things and simply record their opinions. The method should fit with the learning expected: not the trainer’s personal preferences.

Conduct a needs analysis first

Beware of guru-hype, fad-and-fashion, magic-bullet training. Be clear about – with evidence – of who needs what. What do the future leaders need: understanding of how teams work; understanding themselves; improvements in personal resilience? Do not look at training courses like a Chinese takeaway menu. Decide, and be able to articulate and defend, what your company’s training needs are.

Do the training on-site…

…not at some expensive hotel or business school. Yet, that may involve some inconvenience but it massively effects generalization. You remember most and find it easier to apply where you learnt it. This may involve having areas dedicated to training. Consider using carefully written Situational Judgement tests that describe sticky, complex situations, directly relevant to the client group.

Provide as much feedback as possible

This means recording behavior and getting assessors to give quality, detailed feedback to each individual. This may be done by peers as well as teachers. The feedback needs to explain what behaviors need to be changed, maintained and improved.

Require mandatory attendance

No excuses, no exceptions. Yes, and that includes the board and the most senior managers. The military have always done this. In so many businesses, the “grown-ups” can provide a myriad of reasons for not attending. It not only sends the wrong message, but assumes it is only second level leaders (who may well leave the organization) that require or deserve training. Compulsory, not optional: Amen.

Have multiple (and spread out) sessions

A three-day long weekend or a three-week business school module is very suboptimal. Monday, Monday, Monday is much better than Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. And a three-week course should be split into six two-and-a-half sessions. Yes, the hotel does not like this and there are other costs… but the data is very clear: spaced not massed learning is better. Preferably with a homework exercise.

Provide as much training as possible…

…the longer, the better. Do not go for the half-day intensive sheep dip however attractive the cost and promise. Remember the 10,000 hour rule. It is not like a drivers licence: passed at 21 years, driving at 71 years. Business, technology, competition and clients change. This means updating insights and skills: regularly. Have a target…say, 12 days a year.

Include soft skills…

…such as intrapersonal or interpersonal. The paradox is that it is harder to teach soft skills, than technical skills. And yet they certainly count as much. You can teach people to be more perceptive of their own and others’ emotions; to be more resilient and so on. It takes time and effort, but it is a course requirement for leadership.


This article is written for the upcoming edition of BI’s Leadership Magazine.  

Published 25. October 2022

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