In discussions regarding leadership, the question is frequently asked, “Are leaders made or born?” When asked this question, I often quip, “Both. I have never met a leader who wasn’t born.” However, the truth of the matter is that I do not believe anyone is a “born leader.” I am a firm believer that leadership is not something innate, but learned.

Some people learn leadership at an early age because they were raised in a family that modeled good leadership. Other leaders were less fortunate and had to learn their leadership skills by other methods.

The obvious question then is “how does one learn to be a leader?” The answer is “the same way any other behavior is learned.” That being the case, let’s explore how leadership is actually learned.

Through Personal Experience

You can learn through trial and error. Former major league pitcher Vernon Law suggested “Experience is the best teacher because she gives the test first and the lessons afterwards.” Every leader learns through experience. Leadership is often going where no one has gone before and blazing the trail. That is part of what makes a leader a leader. In fact, one thing that makes a great leader is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.

While the lessons learned in the “School of Hard Knocks” are usually learned well, learning this way has some disadvantages. If you are only learning through your own experiences, then your knowledge is going to be quite limited, it is going to take you a longer period of time to learn to be effective and the only way you are going to learn is the hard way.

Through Observation of Leaders

While great leaders learn from their mistakes, they also learn from the successes and mistakes of others. They have neither the time nor the inclination to make all the mistakes themselves.

By paying attention to what goes on around you, you have an excellent opportunity to learn from others. You can see what works well for others as well as what does not. Take a look at those in the field whom have demonstrated effective leadership. What behaviors do they exhibit that have made them successful?

By Reading About Leadership

You can’t experience or observe everything, but, by reading, you can learn from the experiences of your contemporaries, the previous generation, and those leaders throughout history.

You can learn from all three groups by reading their published works as well as books and articles about them. One of the best books about leadership is James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s The Leadership Challenge, which is both an easy read and research-based.

Reading about leaders and their theories of leadership is an excellent leadership learning tool for shaping your own leadership philosophy.

Attending Leadership Training

A fourth resource one can tap into to learn leadership is to attend leadership training. However, all training is not equal. It is best to attend workshop offered by a reputable company which uses proven
educational methodologies and is taught by someone who has actually demonstrated success in a leadership role.

Just reading about leaders and leadership, and/or attending leadership training however, is not enough. Being an effective leader requires you to put into practice the insights you gain from your reading and training.

Having a Mentor or Coach

A fifth way to learn leadership is to acquire a leadership mentor or leadership coach. While many confuse mentoring and coaching, they are not the same.

According to, a mentor is:

  1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
  2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

In other words, a mentor is someone who provides advice, shares knowledge and experiences, and teaches using a low pressure, self-discovery approach.

The role of a coach is different. As stated in The Executive Coaching Handbook, “Executive coaching focuses on developing the executive’s ability to influence, motivate, and lead others. Rather than relying on tactical problem solving or basic skill acquisition, executive coaching develops strategic thinking skills.”

The mentor advices and shares knowledge and experiences to help the “mentee” gain skills and knowledge. A coach helps the “coachee” think through issues and improve his/her problem solving abilities.

Both the mentor and the coach can provide valuable assistance in improving your leadership abilities.

Leadership can be learned, but whether you are a supervisor, a manager, an executive, or someone aspiring to fill one of those leadership roles, it is up to you to take the initiative to gain the skills, knowledge and abilities needed to be an effective leader.

It is never too late or too early to start learning how to be a leader.
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A Discussion Regarding Leadership