Can leadership be learned?

Fresh-faced computer modelling experts and case-study warriors were released on the financial institutions and corporations of America to do things in the ways of the new Century. Much was expected of them. They were so slick in the jargon of financial derivatives. They punched magic into spreadsheets. They could conjure any scenario of 'what-ifs' for any occasion with the numbers morphing to fit. They had the answers to any management problem in their kit from the many case-study exercises.

One cohort headed to Wall Street to replace the old ways of stock trading with pre-set automated buy-sell programs that did away with human judgement. It triggered trading at dazzlingly lightning speed. That blew the fuse on Wall Street, leaving a financial wreck still working its way through the global economy.

Others showed old-style boards how to leverage debt to the hilt in an orgy of mergers and acquisitions. Many long established corporations collapsed under their weight of debt, saddled with clashing company cultures of merged or acquired entities. The plans looked so elegant on paper with all the numbers levitating.

Meanwhile new competitors from Japan, Korea and China grabbed the rich American market with better, faster and cheaper products. Large scale layoffs became the norm rather than the exception, as the gorged conglomerates purged staff to survive.

We missed 'leadership' fretted the MBA faculty. We should have taught them leadership, ethics and morality too. The academic purveyors of packaged wisdom and the consulting cabal are working overtime to churn out studies, papers, books, seminars, conferences, webinars and certification to teach leadership. At the right fee everything is possible. Leadership can also be learned online.

So why the paucity of leaders?

Governments, political parties, religious bodies, corporations, universities, the armed forces, schools and kindergartens are all suffering from a surfeit of functionaries and a scarcity of leaders. Institutions continue practices which no longer deliver results for the new demands. Like old gramaphone record players where needles get stuck in a groove, they wait for somebody to stop and fix them.

If leadership ability can be picked-up like hamburgers off the frying pan, we should all be leading our various pockets of humanity to transform. Yet the world's woes continue unsolved -- whether it be Sumatran forest fires, Indian corruption, African infant mortality, housing in Hong Kong, jobs in Spain, institutionalized racism in Malaysia or public urinals in Calcutta.

Are leaders born or can they be manufactured?

Management academics and consultants promise to build leadership capacity through teaching and coaching. They argue that all skills and principles can be reduced to formulae which can be taught and fashioned into tools. Every function has a process, methodology and system. It just has to be codified, taught and learned.

The Great Man theorists say bull. History is replete with examples of leaders who have challenged the world as is to change it for good or evil. Leaders with vision inspire a following which creates the momentum for change. You can have Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Robert Mugabe -- and every other type in between. The point is they had a vision to change things, the charisma to inspire millions and the gumption to see it through against adversity.

Are there fundamental differences between managers and leaders?

Managers embrace status-quo while leaders overthrow it. That is a deliberate exaggeration to contrast the fundamental difference in mindsets.

Management is all about organization, process, system, routines, discipline, stability, consistency, defined inputs and predictable outcomes.

Leadership is about change with purpose. It is about navigating an unknown environment or forcing change to achieve new results. Someone defines a vision and communicates it convincingly for many others to co-opt as their own. There can be no effective leader without a critical mass of followers behind the idea.

That is why corporate and political power structures destroy potential leaders to eliminate challenges to the status-quo. Leaders are dangerous. Power structures prefer to cultivate manageable subordinates for orderly succession. Leaders can turn a passive crowd into a raging mob. Or a network of nerds into dedicated hackers. Or take countries and organizations into entirely new directions to the discomfort of the entrenched system beneficiaries.

Leaders intuit what managers cannot see. Managers steward organizations and systems. Leaders seek future relevance. Leaders have little patience for process, rules and regulations which get in the way of charting the new course. Managers follow precedent and make safe calls as career yardsticks of reliability. Leaders risk failure to go where no reference point exists. Leaders achieve breakthroughs or create disasters. They have a bias for action.

Good managers are essential. Leaders create the future

Competent managers keep the wheels spinning in complex operations. They are vital. So long as the conditions under which the system, structure and process designed for optimized efficiency prevails, seasoned managers keep the show on the road.

When the game is disrupted by new technology, competition or consumer shift, managers wait for instruction. They are excellent at following orders. They have been trained by decades of HR practice, performance reviews and rewards for being obedient, not to out-think the boss.

Leaders are not necessarily good managers. That is not what makes them leaders. Their contribution is clarity of vision, commitment to purpose and ability to convince people to follow them to an uncertain future.

Are people skills the key attribute of great leaders?

HR practitioners claim that what sets effective leaders apart is empathy and people skills. Such people sensitivity allows them to work productively with a wide spectrum of personality types. That in a time of crisis and change, an 'I feel your pain' leader can assure and calm the doomed.

They are also seen as able to keep their boards assured while the storm rages outside. Something like the effect of the kindly family doctor in a medical emergency.

That sounds plausible. However while leaders may or may not be people-centred, it is usually necessary for them to have domain expertise in the industry and sound knowledge of the relevant technology or finance of the business.

The disruptions that destabilize industries are not from people. They are external factors of technology or research which re-define business models and consumer value.

Often the clueless also find themselves thrust into leadership positions. Heaven help the organizations or institutions which inherit them.