Jun 3, 2022 7 min read

Leadership can be learned but cannot be taught — the role of coaching

Leadership can be learned but cannot be taught — the role of coaching

Leadership as with any skill is something we can learn. Paradoxically though, it cannot be taught. How do we navigate this conundrum? What is the role of leadership coaching and how can it help?


The two extremes

We typically come across two extremes of leadership development. One is that of being as simple as following a list of characters and traits, taking an hour-long course, or even doing an MBA.

The other extreme is that of innate ability and thus beyond the reach of those who are not naturally talented at it.

Neither of these views are helpful. There is a third alternative, only if we are willing to put in the work.

One of the problems with standard leadership courses is that they focus exclusively on skills and produce managers rather than leaders, when they produce anything at all. Managerial skills can, of course, be taught. And they are useful skills for leaders to have.

The ingredients of leadership cannot be taught, however. They must be learned.

- Warren Bennis in On Becoming a Leader [2]

The how of becoming a leader

In my work, I often get asked about how coaching can help with developing as a leader. This can involve a combinations of the below:

  • How exactly does leadership coaching work?
  • Does it even work?
  • What is the “technique” that I teach or the “method” that I use?
  • What “school/model of leadership” do I subscribe to?
  • What are the characteristics of "successful" leadership?
  • Can an MBA program help in becoming a better leader?

The underlying assumption in all these questions is that there is some formula or technique that people learn to become better leaders.

Most business books and MBA programs want you to believe that they have the answers to these questions and the correct answer is the one they have or at least the better option.

This view in my opinion is misinformed and even harmful.

Reality is not as nicely defined

Consider the infographics that tout the differences between managers and leaders. They will list out traits of each and contrast them with each other.

The differences are clear and the boundaries well defined. These come directly from the traits/competency based schools of teaching leadership.

The premise is that - here are the 10 things that leaders do, go do these and you are a leader.

But notice our own behavior when we see these infographics. More often than not we ignore them. It's because we know that reality is not as straightforward and well-defined as the infographic suggests.

Leadership cannot be taught

Leadership lies in the human domain as opposed to the material or natural/scientific domain and thus is not amenable to the same rules and laws.

One mistake people make is to believe that leadership is a skill that they can learn by reading, sitting through talks, or taking classes.

.. the fact is that no book, consultant, class, or series of classes, including an MBA, can teach anyone how to lead a small team, let alone a big organization.

It is a craft you can learn only through experience. This lesson about leadership is evident throughout history, and remains true despite all the training and business knowledge that has been amassed.

— Jeffrey Pfeffer, Robert Sutton in Hard Facts [4]

As Donald Schon put it, leadership is learnable but cannot be taught. In his masterful Educating the Reflective Practitioner, there’s an especially insightful passage that highlights this paradoxical aspect of leadership. [1]

He explains what he calls “a design-like practice”. While he is writing in the context of designing in architecture, the same is equally applicable to the domain of leadership development and the process of becoming leaders.

A design-like practice cannot be conveyed to students wholly or mainly by classroom teaching:

  • The gap between a description of designing and the knowing- in-action that corresponds to it must be filled by reflection-in-action.
  • Designing must be grasped as a whole, by experiencing it in action.
  • Designing depends on recognition of design qualities, which must be learned by doing.
  • Descriptions of designing are likely to be perceived initially as confusing, vague, ambiguous, or incomplete; their clarification depends on a dialogue in which understandings and misunderstandings are revealed through action.
  • Because designing is a creative process in which a designer comes to see and do things in new ways, no prior description of it can take the place of learning by doing.

There is obviously a place for theory, definitions, and descriptions but they can only do so much.

Here’s how Schon puts it:

In order for such descriptions to become useful for action, students must be engaged in learning by doing and in dialogue with someone in the role of coach.

Leadership can be learned

Below is an interpretation of the above passage applied to leadership. This can help illuminate some of the how of becoming a leader and the role that leadership coaching plays in this process.

Reflection is the catalyst in learning

A designlike practice cannot be conveyed to students wholly or mainly by classroom teaching.

Leadership cannot be learned in the class or any setting removed from reality. Reality is too complex and varied to be simulated inside a classroom or even using case-studies.

It has to be learned through what Warren Bennis calls “crucible” experiences out in the real world with real time feedback. [2]

What accelerates the process is the skilled use of reflecting upon those crucible experiences. This is where coaching can play a pivotal role.

The map is not the territory

The gap between a description of designing and the knowing- in-action that corresponds to it must be filled by reflection-in-action.

A coach or mentor can only provide a “description” of reality. In fact, if they are any good , they will focus more on distinctions rather than descriptions.

Distinctions open up possibilities and options, more so than descriptions. They help you see things differently and see different things which were invisible before.

However, the map is not the territory. We have to figure out and navigate the territory ourselves.

Regardless of how good a coach is, knowing-in-action by definition requires a doing. The coachee has to fill in the blanks with skilled reflection that happens both in the midst of action and afterwards.

This process is natural and we are naturally skilled at this. What comes in the way is our preconceived notions and unexamined mental models.

The whole is greater than its parts

Designing must be grasped as a whole, by experiencing it in action.

It's the same for leadership. The whole is often exponentially more than the sum of it’s parts. The only way to grasp leadership as a whole is through our own experiences in action.

It is in action that we actually experience the whole instead of a construct that examines only one part of reality. The learning is more embodied and visceral rather than a theoretical one.

Intelligence is developed through doing, learning, reflecting

Designing depends on recognition of design qualities, which must be learned by doing.

No list of leadership competencies or leadership traits is ever complete. Every leadership situation is contextual and specific to what that particular situation requires.

At the same time, we all know when we see a competent leader. All of us know when we ourselves are doing a good job leading or otherwise.

There are qualities inherent to good leadership that we develop and recognize through our doing, learning, and reflecting.

The process can be frustrating

Descriptions of designing are likely to be perceived initially as confusing, vague, ambiguous, or incomplete; their clarification depends on a dialogue in which understandings and misunderstandings are revealed through action.

This is common in my coaching interactions. People who are looking for a formula or an easy path tend to get frustrated in the process. Because the process is not linear.

One passing comment or discussion emerges later on as the pivotal thing. Although at the time, it did not sound important and didn’t come across that way.

A big part of leadership coaching is this ongoing dialogue, and the intelligence that is generated through taking action in the real world and reflecting skillfully on the generated intelligence.

Leadership is a creative act

Because designing is a creative process in which a designer comes to see and do things in new ways, no prior description of it can take the place of learning by doing.

Leadership is a creative act as well. Regardless of domain it requires us to step out of what we already know and into the unknown where there are no guarantees.

Leaders are literally creating a version of reality through their actions and responses. They are both figuratively and literally, bending reality through their conversations and by engineering a context.

This cannot be taught and can only be learned by doing. What the coach can do is show a general direction in which to look and what to look for.

Turning experience into wisdom

In order for such descriptions to become useful for action, students must be engaged in learning by doing and in dialogue with someone in the role of coach.

The most important word in the above sentence is and.

Many of us have taken courses, attended seminars, and read books to get better at leadership. But the missing piece in all of this is skilled reflection on our learning and experience.

Experience connects theory and practice, but it is only skilled reflection that turns that experience into wisdom.

Coaching helps engineer and expedite this process of skilled reflection.

Here's how the world's foremost expert on peak performance and expertise put it:

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.

Real life—our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies—seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition...

Much of what a good teacher or coach will do is to develop such exercises for you, designed specifically to help you improve the particular skill you are focused on at the moment.

- Anders Ericsson in Peak [3]

Consider your own assumptions about leadership. Do you think it’s teachable? Do you think it’s learnable?

What has worked for you and what hasn’t?  Why so?


Liked this article? You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter.

It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.


Further Reading

A proven method commonly used in sports coaching is deliberate practice. But it's not typically associated with leadership development. Here's one way to change that.

Staying on top of your own development is a key leadership skillset. I examine this notion in  Self Development in Leadership.

Skilled reflection is a key mechanism behind the effectiveness of coaching in accelerating leadership development. I do a deep dive into reflection here.

Leadership coaching is a process and it takes time. Human change is different from machine change. Speed is not necessarily the best criteria when it comes to engineering change in ourselves and in others. I examine this notion in Speed as the Wrong Criteria.

Making something formulaic also robs us of the richness of the experience. As a Chinese curse goes, the worst thing that can happen to you is getting everything you want instantly. This is equally true in leadership.

Footnotes/References

  1. Educating the Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon.
  2. On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis.
  3. Peak by Anders Ericcson.
  4. Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truth & Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton.
  5. This Ted talk below by Atul Gawande is a modern classic on what coaching can do:

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.