A Necessary Question
While I don't (necessarily) agree with Tom Ricks' recommendation to close the service academies and war colleges, I applaud the question. I do agree that the service academies and war colleges (I've taught at both) have cultures and processes that tend to reinforce the insular nature of the military culture, with both positive and negative consequences.
That said, I continue to believe that the service academies and war colleges CAN offer the nation a uniquely positive service, and that questions such as Tom's must regularly be asked to hold the institutions accountable to the society they serve, rather than the service cultures they often see themselves ordained to protect. Even the best institutions must regularly be jolted out of the self-congratulatory complacency that can take hold when excellent organizations come to believe their own propaganda and mythology.
Can Leadership be taught? The question reminds me of a similar set of questions that I heard posed by Dr. George Lucas, Senior Philosophy Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, about character. He once told me that for millenia, philosophers and educators have been struggling with the questions: "What is character? Can it be taught? If so, how?"
I think the same questions apply to leadership. I believe that academic and degree programs in leadership can teach about leadership, but I don't think anyone will argue that understanding leadership from a theoretical and academic perspective alone makes one a good leader. I see a distinction between teaching about leadership and teaching one to be a good leader.
Since I see leadership as a practical "skill," I have made the analogy to the practical skill of sports - let's take basketball. I can teach you rules, theory, technique and strategy of basketball in the classroom, but how well you learn and understand these in the classroom will have limited transference to how well you play on the court. Obviously, knowing the rules, theory, etc., shouldn't hurt one's playing and should in fact help a good player be better (one would hope), but there is a distinction between understanding the game in its complexity and playing it well.
I think that is also true about leadership: There is a distinction to be made between understanding leadership theory and executing well in practice. I believe that spending time in the classroom studying leadership can help one to become a better leader, and probably won't hurt, but the true essence of the "art" of leadership is developed with practice and experience.
When developing leaders, theory and classroom exercises should serve primarily to augment, amplify and understand experience. The best leadership development programs use education to augment practice and experience, and include self-reflection and guided analysis, followed by more practice, followed by more self-reflection, etc. Such an approach is common with executive coaching programs, and is seen in some on-going leader development programs in industry and government, and in some leadership programs that emphasize the experiential component of leadership, augmented by instruction, coaching, and self reflection. The National Outdoor Leadership School uses that approach, which is why (full disclosure) I serve on their Advisory Council.
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