What Leaders Can’t be Taught

It has been my privilege over the past four decades,  as an adult educator, to have met people from all walks of life who attend my various training courses and residential leadership programs. Their common objective is that they aspire to greater things in their personal and professional lives. In some cases, they seek the pinnacle of executive responsibility. 

Many of these students are disheartened when I tell them  there are certain critical skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. Because they are largely attitudinal and hence only learned from experience. These are the attitudes that drive success – our aspiration level, our resilience and our perspective. Though I can provide the direction on getting started, these are lessons that must be self taught as the requisite skills are honed through unexpected everyday events and challenging interpersonal encounters. 

We live in difficult, troubling and sometimes chaotic times,  when unrelenting, complex and discontinuous change dominates virtually every important activity or decision. We know life is not fair, that talent doesn’t always count and dedication guarantees nothing. As they say, stuff happens. Regrets, failures and disappointment are also a part of life’s incredible journey. If we choose to dwell on these things, we can easily get angry, distracted and even depressed. We can become fearful, insecure and bitter. But this response to the circumstances that befall us just wastes a lot of valuable time – time that could be spent doing other, more important things. Life isn’t forever. 

You may not be able to control what happens in your life  but you can control what happens in your mind. For it is the repository of your attitudes and beliefs. And beliefs determine behaviour. I know that successful people are not possessed by a victim mentality. They may be healthy skeptics at times but they are surely not cynics. Cynicism and its close cousin, negativism, arise from a loss of faith in oneself, from taking things too personally and from playing the blame game. 

The victim mentality, simply defined, is an outlook which says:  my life is essentially at the mercy of vast powerful forces beyond my control. As a consequence, it makes little difference what I want out of life; since I am relatively powerless, I must learn to settle for whatever I can get. This self-serving but self-defeating attitude discharges you from taking any responsibility for your decisions. For, clearly, what is happening to you is not your fault.  

There are, of course, times when we are indeed faced with circumstances  and events over which we have little or no control – hurricanes, earthquakes, the uncertainty and fears of terrorism or pandemics. Members of minority groups, the poor, homeless or downtrodden offer compelling evidence of the injustices with which they must contend – discrimination, racism, sexism, uncaring bureaucrats and politicians, idiotic laws, and the like. But there is a huge difference between being a victim and having a victim mentality. This is the attitude that says I give up. What’s the use?  Why even try? I have no power. I’m not smart. I was never given that opportunity. The things you suggest may help other people, but they certainly offer no hope to me. 

Leaders do not have a victim mentality.  Rather, elite performance requires a sincere belief in your cause, your course and ultimately yourself. This attitude is the fuel that drives talent, creates opportunities, solves vexatious problems and, for leaders, inspires others to follow and do great things. This belief makes you get up every morning with a sense of purpose, with big ideas and with the passion to execute them. Emerson once said “to believe in one’s thoughts is genius.” Successful people conscientiously endeavour to liberate the genius within. 

The world is full of people who lack a sincere belief in their own unique capabilities.  They are the underachievers. But it’s also full of successful people. Read about them. Better still, find a few and spend some time with them. Their stories will help orient you, keep you centered and grounded. When needed, they will provide a source of motivation. Of course, you will still make bad decisions and screw up. Because stuff does happens and no one can bat a thousand. The opportunity embedded in failure lies in knowing how to deal with it when it occurs. 

Failure is inevitable. At worst, it’s a mixed blessing  – it hurts when it happens but pays off eventually in growth and wisdom. Research tells us adversity is necessary for people to be happy, successful and fulfilled. You can’t teach resilience but you can learn it from failing. Almost every successful person has suffered a major setback in his or her life. This illustrious group includes people like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, tells us he has “failed over and over again, and that is why I succeed.” 

All learning is error driven.  But these missteps invariably serve to grab our attention, force us to integrate new information, initiate the search for new meanings, quicken our mastery of new skills and, in a roundabout way, lead us to the discovery of true happiness. Admittedly, there are a few antidotes for treating the affliction of failure that can hasten the process of personal growth. These include:

  • Ensuring your life is multi-faceted and not entirely reliant on just one or two predominant activities, relationships or undertakings; 
  • Knowing your brain is not fixed or atrophying but rather “plastic” – you can learn to become smarter;
  • Understanding the nature of risking – people who are less afraid to fail happen to succeed more;
  • Having a sense of humour and nurturing the company of others who support you;
  • Cultivating your optimism – you can learn how to make lemons into lemonade;
  • Scaling down your expectations of yourself and learning about your blind spots and ego traps. 

The difference between people who pull themselves out of the funk of failure  and those who don’t is pretty straightforward – the latter dwell on their circumstances rather than making the choice to move forward. Again, it’s their attitude that determines their altitude. We are able to “move on” when we can develop a calming sense of perspective, see failure as learning rather than stupidity, and recalibrate our beliefs about what we can (and have yet to) accomplish. In short, with failure must come a commitment to change something. 

There is a story about a man who wanted to change the world.  As hard as he tried, he accomplished little if anything. So, instead, he thought he should just try to change his country. He had no success with that either. Then he tried to change his city, then his neighbourhood. Still without results. Then he thought he could at least change his family. But he failed at that also. So he decided to change himself. And a surprising thing happened. As he changed himself, his family changed. And, as his family changed, his neighbourhood changed. As his neighbourhood changed, his city changed. As his city changed, his country changed. And, as his country changed, the world changed.

The moral is obvious:  If you can change your mind, you can change the world. Because change is an evolutionary process that reaps progressive benefits. The steps are incremental and experimental – much like tossing a pebble in a pond, it reverberates and feeds on itself as an energy source. But all intentional change begins with a simple declaration, followed by an initial action step. This involves answering two fundamental questions and doing so with sincere commitment. These questions are:

1.   What am I going to do about it?

2.   When will I do it?

Carpe diem.  – Horace, 23 BC