How to Learn to Be a Leader

In discussions regarding leadership, I am often 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, I quickly follow that up with the fact that I am a firm believer that leadership is not something innate, but is learned behavior. The obvious question then is “if leadership is learned behavior, how does one learn it?” and 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? What methods do they use to accomplish their goals? What is it they do that causes people to want to follow them?
By Reading about Leaders and 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 works and books 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. Just reading about leaders and leadership, however, is not enough. Being an effective leader requires you to put into practice the insights you gain from your reading.

Having a Mentor or Coach

A fourth 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 advises 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 who is not currently in an official position of leadership, it is up to you to take the initiative to gain the skills, knowledge and abilities needed if you want be an effective leader. It is never too early to start learning how to be a leader. Questions or comments about this column or suggestions of topics for future columns may be submitted to

How to Learn to Be a Leader
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