What makes you think you can teach us how to lead?
That is the question a student asks his college professor on the first day of the leadership course. A fair and brave question to ask of the experienced teacher standing in front of the lecture hall. If you were the professor, how would you respond?
Today I read an article (Who Can Teach Leadership?) in the Harvard Business Review by Gianpiero Petriglieri, a college professor in Organizational Development. In the article he does admit that indeed no student ever asked this question. Yet he is insightful to imagine such a question and how he would respond.
I too have taught leadership. We sat in a conference room for days reviewing theory, best practices and assessments detailing our leadership style. We were in pursuit of the ideal and I was the fool standing in front of the room. Honestly I do not know how I would have answered that question years ago standing in front of that workshop group. Today I would be excited to hear such a question, much like the author of this article.
How do we learn about leadership? By leading. By following.
By gaining one experience after another.
Yet there is more. We learn by our exposure to others who lead and yet are different from us. Their style is different. Their approach is different. Their results are different. This exposure allows us to check our own leadership practices and critically test ourselves. A good leader-in-training is a skeptic. He or she questions knowledge and beliefs as presented. What is true for me? What is my unique expression of leadership?
By the way, we are all leaders-in-training. This skepticism should stay with us for life. As the article points out, while skepticism is useful, cynicism is not. Be critical and evaluate. Do not prejudge and assume the worse.
What makes me think I can teach you about leadership? Here is my story … the path I have taken. What can you take from it? I work to earn your trust and I listen to your story. I commit to broaden your experience and then help you to pause, think and decide on your next step. I walk this path with you.
I do not teach leadership. We learn together.