[I alluded to this topic before. I still have to write it up formally and edit it more than a daily post allows. I hope it gets the main ideas across. Please contact me if it interests you.]
You only have to read the news to see the problems
Do I have to convince anyone that we have many people in leadership positions who lead ineffectively? You only have to read the headlines.
As I’m writing these words the New York Times’ top headline is about a spy scandal in which the top person at the NSA lied to Congress, which is abdicating its Constitutional checks on the President, who is doing the opposite of what he promised the country during his campaign on this issue.
I don’t know if I can call any of these people leaders. They hold positions where they could lead, but I don’t see them leading. I see them ducking leadership roles and serving their personal interests above their constituents’.
Let’s look at the business section. The top story in the Times’ “Dealbook” says “An outside review of Bloomberg L.P.’s practices found that the company’s journalists had access to private data about the company’s clients until earlier this year, long after the issue first came to the attention of Bloomberg’s top executives, according to a report on the review released Wednesday.”
Despite evidence of poor leadership at the highest levels of government, business, military, and so on, we pay our leaders plenty. (I’ll say more about this point in the last section of this post.)
Why do people lead?
Many of the most prominent seem interested in moving up an organization chart, making more money, gaining more power, and the like.
When I think of why I like leading, five main values come to mind. I submit the following rewards of effective leadership as great as the rewards of any other role in any profession.
- The joy of doing what you care about
- The joy of leading others who care
- The opportunity to lead again
- The joy of working in effective teams
- The reward of improved relationships with everyone, including myself that comes from emotional intelligence and self-awareness
When you lead effectively, these internal emotional rewards outweigh the external ones of money, power, and fame, from my experience and observation, anyway.
Why would anyone want to learn leadership skills?
What you can create with your hands and personal resources is all you can create without teamwork.
Think of anything meaningful in history. It was likely created through teamwork.
Think of something in the world you want to change. You will do more with a team.
Leadership skills are fundamentally skills that improve your life, even if you never use them to lead a formal group — skills like resolving conflict, managing teams, knowing your values, influencing others, awareness of perception, and so on.
If you face a challenge or want to do something, leadership skills will help get it done.
Here’s one example. My mother lives in an area where fracking could make a few companies a lot of money but, according to her, the population living there overwhelmingly opposes it on environmental grounds. The companies are organized with a few highly motivated people leading them. The population, though vastly larger in number, is diverse and distributed with no clear leaders.
Regardless of which side you agree with, which side do you see having the advantage here? I don’t know about you, but I see the concentrated leadership of the few as a major strength, possibly enough to override the overwhelming majority, despite our democratic ideals.
How much would that advantage shift if someone with great leadership skills organized the population? If you were in that community trying to defend your land, wouldn’t you want leadership skills?
If a situation requiring leadership comes to you, your community, or your family, don’t you want the skills to handle it? Do you want the skills to coach your kids team? To resolve differences with your family? To organize your classmates in a class project? To create and manage teams at work? To start a venture you’ve always dreamed of running?
Unless you plan on working at the DMV your whole life, you benefit from leadership skills.
How do we train leaders?
How do we train leaders? Where do we teach it?
Business schools teach leadership, but cost a lot in time and money and surround your with bankers, consultants, and people looking for MBA-type jobs in multinationals. I had a few classmates looking to start companies, work in non-profits, and such, but we made up a small minority, though Columbia’s proximity to Wall Street and its Value Investing pedigree may skew its population relative to other top business schools.
The corporate world has no monopoly on leadership positions. They exist in government, non-profits, entrepreneurship, community organizing, sports, and many other areas — family life, for that matter. I don’t find business schools conducive for leaders-in-training interested in
Military schools teach leadership, but for war — not that useful outside the military — and bureaucracy — not that useful anywhere. The U.S. hasn’t done well in wars in decades.
Educational schools teach leadership, but for education and bureaucracy.
Corporate training teaches leadership, but it’s only available in corporations. Corporate trainers are motivated to help organization first, trainee second.
You can learn though trial and error, but that’s expensive and keeps you from learning from others’ mistakes.
Books teach leadership, but learning leadership requires experience, which books don’t give. So you need to combine them with trial and error. Now you start getting somewhere. Still, they take time and you don’t know which books help more than others.
Coaches teach leadership, but there aren’t that many of them and they can cost a lot too. Learning through them is not as intensive as school. You don’t get a team learning experience through them either. (I say this as a coach).
Apprenticeship and mentoring teach a lot of people leadership. You have to find an effective mentor yourself and they might know leadership skills that well, or how to teach them.
Books plus coaches plus trial and error plus mentoring together appear to make an effective combination. These elements together start looking like school. You could imagine a school that could combine the most effective of these things with
- Finding trained and capable teachers, specifically in teaching leadership skills (as opposed to mentors who are just the best an aspiring leader found in their network)
- Creating an effective curriculum (instead of buying books and hoping for the best)
- Saving time by organizing everything for the students (instead of them reinventing the wheel every time)
- Creating a group learning environment (leadership skills being fundamentally social skills)
- And all the other things vocational schools help with — finding jobs, building an alumni base, conferring degrees that mean something, and so on.
A leadership school?
Regarding how we compensate our leaders, even ones who do poorly, I know one thing that sets prices in a competitive market — supply and demand.
Paying them a lot means low supply relative to demand, which is consistent with my observation that we have a dearth of means to teach leadership.
High demand, low supply, and a lot of money lying on the table suggest on obvious call to action for any entrepreneur: to start a leadership school to meet the demand.
Successful leaders and leadership programs exist, just not dedicated schools, so we know how to do it. Just nobody has yet.
As a leadership trainer who has started a few companies, the opportunity attracts me in particular.
When I describe the idea to people, the most common reaction I hear is that starting a school is hard — harder than worth trying. My normal response to that is that every school that exists today once didn’t. They all had to start somehow.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed reading about the success of Tesla. Someone created a car company in the United States from scratch that earned Consumer Reports’ highest ratings ever and more recently set a record for safety.
I myself started a company that put displays in subway systems around the world, now seventeen years into the project. I love subways, but working with subway systems can be as bureaucratic and challenging as working with most government agencies.
How to start?
I’ll have to write about my ideas to start in a later post.
Are you interested?
Please contact me
- If this post resonates with you
- If you teach leadership or anything like it
- If you coach leadership or anything like it
- If you like the idea of starting a new venture
- If you know anyone like that
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