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Mickey Edwards
Political leader

Mickey Edwards

Former U.S. Congressman, Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

Having Leadership vs. True Leader

I don't know whether the military academies effectively teach leadership (I've given guest lectures at both West Point and Annapolis, but don't have a good sense of the overall curriculum at either institution), but yes -- leadership can be taught. The key is to remember the difference between trying to teach one to "be a leader" (impossible) and teaching one to exercise leadership (which is quite doable).

A "charismatic leader" -- Weber's definition of one who inspires followership by virtue of personal talents or characteristics -- is: a) so much a rarity as to make reliance on his or her availability a rather futile exercise and, b) potentially quite dangerous (do the names Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones or David Koresh mean anything to you?) One can, of course, attempt to teach students to exercise more gravitas (stand straight, lower your voice, use a pre-tested motivational vocabulary) or, conversely, to become more charming (can you make your eyes twinkle?) But why bother: When it comes to being "a natural leader," you've either got it or you haven't.

So what does that leave? The particular techniques, skill sets, and structures that allow one to lead. It's a matter of "doing," not "being." For example, if one wishes to lead an organization in pursuit of a goal, it is helpful to know how to clarify one's vision, develop a clearly-understood "message," form alliances around common goals, create an effective decision-making structure, analyze potential strategies and choose the best ones, etc.

We live in a society in which individual or collective non-governmental action can provide the catalyst for serious change. The labor movement, the woman's movement, the gay rights movement, the California tax rebellions all benefited from having identifiable spokesmen, but there were no Gandhis in the bunch. They had leadership, not leaders (holding an office in an organization does not make one a "leader"; it only makes one the holder of an office). Does one seriously think of Howard Jarvis, Kate Michelman, or Walter Reuther as a great leader? All fit the mold of committed advocates who exercised the tools of leadership.

Which is where Ricks is wrong: If the academies are not teaching leadership, that doesn't mean they can't. Closing the academies is one option, but properly understanding leadership training is another option and maybe the better one.

By Mickey Edwards

 |  April 20, 2009; 2:07 PM ET
Category:  Teaching Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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PS. The idea of mentioning the risks of Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones, and David Koresh as examples of natural leaders is preposterous and red Herring. Can Mr Edwards prove that no-one who graduated from "leadership training" ever did anything bad or evil? What was Osama bin Laden and his colleagues doing in those training camps anyway?

Posted by: harrumph1 | April 21, 2009 12:53 AM
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I am skeptical that "doing" (and the teaching thereof) is as or more significant than "being" in terms of leadership. Mr. Edwards falls into the standard trap of equating "management" with leadership which I see more and more often these days. Of course, this (mistaken) view is strongly promoted by institutions that people like Mr. Edwards manages as well as by all the business schools - they profit from this view. Management is a reasonable skill and it sometimes requires a very basic level of leadership in that one has to supervise others. But real leadership is something much deeper, and while it often may be learned, it is not going to be learned from the people like Mr Edwards who claim to teach it - it will be learned by the life and professional experiences of the individual as he/she pursues his/her careers and dreams.

Posted by: harrumph1 | April 21, 2009 12:48 AM
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