If there is one thing I’ve learned from studying leadership as an academic discipline it’s that leadership is as much an art as it is a science. It reminds me of my training as a therapist. When I went to Duquesne University to get my graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, we spent a significant amount of time learning techniques and theories about counseling. However, you could be the best academic student in the program and still fail miserably as a therapist. Why? Because just having head knowledge about how to use numerous therapeutic techniques isn’t enough. One must apply that knowledge in a way that can’t be explained but rather must be experienced and observed. It would be like learning to swim from reading an article on the subject and never going into the water. When I saw my professors work with clients, I could see the things we were taught being used but it was like watching someone paint a portrait. The artistic nature of what they were doing could be seen when they chose an intervention at just the right time and used it in a way that was beautiful. Leadership, like counseling, is an art as much as it’s a science.
I’ve noticed that several leaders in organizations I have studied or have done some limited training with don’t understand this very basic concept about leading. They want an academic like me or a successful consultant to “teach” their people how to be better leaders. It’s not that consultants and academics can’t help improve someone’s leadership skills, but much of what it means to be a leader comes from constantly being challenged by the situations you’re placed in and evaluating how you did, what worked, and how to do it better. One must take up the “Craft” of leading as an artist learns to shape the most beautiful table from a hunk of wood found in his or her woodshop.
Now, as I’m writing this, I know several you are saying, “If that’s the case, why should I study leadership or engage consultants to help my organization?” My answer to you is because it helps. Leadership consultants and educators are people who have spent a significant amount of time understanding and practicing the craft. They are the sort of people one might have apprenticed with in the ages past to learn a skill. Yet, its not just the experience they bring to educating future leaders that matters. If that were the case, all you need to do is find others who are successful leaders and learn from them. While that can be tremendously helpful, someone who is a fine leader but doesn’t understand how to convey what they know about leading isn’t very helpful. My point is good practitioners are not always the best teachers and the best teachers are often lacking in significant leadership practice. Finally, a good teacher and a good practitioner may not be good researchers who can provide you with a good understanding of what the future will look like and the best way to lead in that future.
So, what does all this mean for you as someone who wants to improve their leadership skills? Simply this: don’t just learn from one source, become a master leader by engaging the three streams of leadership wisdom I just mentioned. Find a good leader who you believe is doing a great job. Learn from his or her approach to leading. Appropriate what works for you and your organization and fine tune it. Learn from some of the best educators in the leadership world. Find teachers who understand the leadership material and learn from them. Soak in what they have to say and use it in your leadership efforts. Finally, read the research. Read what scholars in the leadership field are saying is going to be important as culture, people, and the context of your industry changes. These three sources for understanding the practice of leadership are essential and without one of them you find yourself woefully prepared for some aspect of leading. Good practitioners, excellent teachers, and solid research are the different types of canvases and brushes you will use to paint the portrait of a leader you want to be.
As I said when I started this article, leadership is as much an art as a science. It’s your job as a leader to create something beautiful. It’s not just your job, it is your responsibility. The people that depend on you to do what you do well need someone who isn’t just knowledgeable, but creative. It’s this creative aspect of leading that allows you to inspire others to be more than a cog in the organizational system. Your craft reminds people they are connected to a bigger purpose and that their work, and dare I say their life, has meaning and purpose. Go and create something beautiful, it’s what good leaders do.