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Marty Linsky

Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Learning Not Teaching

Of course, leadership can be taught. But don't trust me on that: teaching and consulting on leadership is what I do for a living. I am a bit biased.

Actually, I am more clear that leadership can be learned than that it can be taught.

Leadership is a behavior, a set of skills, that can be learned by anyone, if you have the will to do so. Sure, some people have some "natural" advantages, just like some kids seem to be "natural" athletes at age 4 or 5. But for every young natural athlete there are many more who work incredibly hard and become great athletes when they are older. And I have seen lots of those naturals who thought their innate talent was all that they needed and ended up riding the bench.

There is no skill useful for leadership that you cannot learn if you really commit. Take charisma. Charisma is about moving people, connecting with them emotionally to take them to a place they did not intend to go. That's what actors learn to do, just like that's what people exercising leadership learn to do.

The same is true with learning courage. The military teaches courage; so do wilderness programs. Like charisma, courage can be learned.

But the skills for exercising leadership, like courage and charisma, are value neutral. They are not just useful for leadership. They can be used for good purposes or bad. They can be used to reach great heights or to take people over a cliff. Leadership is about mobilizing people on behalf of purpose, and because leadership is risky, that purpose is not about self-aggrandizement. Because the risks of leadership can only be understood in connection with purpose, there is no such thing as bad leadership.

There is ineffective leadership and unskilled leadership, but what makes leadership risky is that when you step out there because you care deeply about some purpose, you do not know whether anyone is going to follow up or whether, as happens to so many people trying to exercise leadership, you will be marginalized, pushed aside or worse.

By Marty Linsky

 |  April 21, 2009; 6:14 AM ET
Category:  Teaching Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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