What is Leadership? Is it an innate or a learned skill? What is the best way to learn it?
Ask 25 people what “leadership” means, and you might get 30 different answers.
Some people say a leader is the loudest voice or the most charismatic person in the room—the type who courageously expresses themselves and speaks their mind. Others, using a military context, say it’s the first person in and the last person out of combat. Still others say it’s the person who sets the direction, holds people accountable and takes responsibility when things don’t go as planned.
Is it all those things? Some of them? None?
Helena Karchere, director of the Bailey Program for Family Enterprise at the Daniels College of Business, is comfortable with this ambiguity around leadership. Karchere, a professional coach who led learning and development at Ball Corporation, believes that people need to define and describe leadership in their own way.
“One misunderstanding is that it takes a certain personality, background or role for someone to be a leader,” Karchere said. “To me, a leader is anybody in an organization, wherever they sit, whatever personality or background they may have, who is dedicated to supporting the growth of the people they’re with to accomplish the organization’s goals.
“Leadership is more about self-awareness than it is about certain characteristics,” Karchere continued. “Many people have qualities that lend themselves to leadership. But no matter what strengths you have, it’s a matter of identifying those strengths and building and using them in the context of leadership. That leaves plenty of room for introverts to be leaders. They can be as effective and inspiring as more outgoing people.”
Then the question turns to how someone becomes a leader. Aside from its definition, there are differing schools of thought on whether leadership is an innate or learned skill.
Karchere believes that leadership is mostly a learned skill that can be developed at any age.
“Leadership skills are life skills,” Karchere said. “They’re qualities or characteristics that you can start building and enhancing from childhood or at any point in your life. But ultimately, being a leader is a choice that involves the courage and vulnerability to put yourself forward in your thought and actions to help other people and work together toward what is possible.”
Getting to that point often requires help, which has become broadly available.
Corporate Leadership Development
Over the last two decades, with the rapid evolution of technology, increased global competition and ethical challenges, corporations have placed a premium on leadership development. Instead of waiting for leaders to just show up, companies have implemented in-house leadership development programs. The discipline of professional coaching has also matured, and universities have added their own highly effective leadership curricula to the mix.
Karchere has experienced all sides of the leadership development puzzle and understands each approach.
“Given my background, I’m a strong believer in in-house leadership programs,” she said. “However, taking that route involves complex decision-making and ongoing investment of significant resources.
“Those discussions involve a fundamental shift in thinking about the human resources function,” she added. “But these programs can be enormously helpful when a company finds itself in the position, for example, of scaling its business or making product line shifts. In-house programs can develop home-grown leaders and produce much-needed cultural champions for coming change.”
Many companies also employ outside coaches, either as a substitute for an internal program or as a supplement to what already exists.
“Individual coaching can be costly, but it provides the advantage of long-term accountability and movement toward goals,” Karchere said. “The disadvantage is that you’re not learning from your peers like you are in a group learning environment.”
Karchere says that university programs—such as the Accelerated Leadership Experience from Daniels Executive Education—provide the benefit of a concentrated, uninterrupted learning experience in a team environment, which allows participants to learn from experienced faculty as well as fellow participants.
“One of the main benefits of a group program is the cohort—your peers—and the conversations you’re having about the case studies and your own experiences,” said Karchere. “That provides significant, real-world depth beyond what is already a substantive curriculum.
“It’s also a safe environment where you can try out a new skill—such as giving feedback—where any potential mistakes won’t have real consequences or where anyone will be judging you. Those are types of experiences one-on-one coaching can’t provide.”
With so many resources available for people who are interested in becoming leaders, only one question remains: Do you want to be a leader? Leadership is no longer a selective process. The choice is yours to make.