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A Key Tool for Developing Leadership Skills

Throughout our lives weve been exposed to countless leadership styles. Whether its Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey or Warren Buffett, it seems every great leader has some intangible quality that makes it easy for others to follow. While some people may be natural leaders, even the best continue working on their craft. Leadership skills can be learned by observing and interacting with leaders in your own environment, or you can read books, watch documentaries whatever works for you. In this article, learn how studying the challenges and triumphs of successful leaders remains one of the key tools for acquiring leadership skills.

A Key Tool for Developing Leadership Skills

We may know good and bad leaders when we see them, but pinning down exactly what constitutes strong leadership is elusive. Even harder than defining what makes a skilled leader is creating one, and imparting leadership abilities is at once a vital and slippery function of business education.

"Leadership is more nebulous than accounting skills or marketing acumen," says Glenn Rowe, director of the executive MBA program at the Richard Ivey School of Business, and Paul MacPherson chair in Strategic Leadership. Unlike many other subjects included in MBA programs, it is difficult to use a standard test or body of knowledge as a yardstick to evaluate performance, either in class or in the workplace.

"I'm not actually sure that leadership is something that can be taught in a classroom, and I'm saying that as someone who's been doing that, or should I say trying to do that, for quite some time," Dr. Rowe says with a laugh. Rather than planning lectures that explicitly address leadership, he tries to approach the subject from a more oblique angle by discussing elements of leadership drawn from case studies and students' own experiences.

Leadership is also something he teaches by example. "I believe that good leaders treat people with dignity and respect, so part of my job is to respond in the classroom in that manner," he explains. "When a student asks a question, I need to address that topic, while helping to give the student a vision of who he or she can become after graduation as a leader."

All business schools incorporate teamwork in their courses and projects, although the proportion of assignments done in groups varies by school. Part of the value of team projects is the opportunity they provide for students to get experience as leaders, and also as team members. Many of the characteristics seen in good leaders, such as self-awareness, reliability and sensitivity to the strengths and weaknesses of colleagues, are also features of good followers.

The tightly defined parameters of teamwork in the classroom also help students to focus on leadership, since the professor establishes team membership, tasks and deadlines. These assignments serve as a laboratory for students, letting them test their skills in a structured and safe environment. In such a setting, aspiring leaders can practise setting priorities, allocating resources and managing their teammates, explains Tracy Hecht, an associate professor at Concordia's John Molson School of Business.

Taking responsibility and accepting consequences are other key components of leadership that can be developed and demonstrated in an academic setting. In one EMBA class on leading change, one of the case studies involves a manager who demotes two employees and then is asked by colleagues to defend the decision. Students are asked to read case notes during the break and then role-play the scenario, with a twist: "I pick three students who I know will ask tough questions to play the co-workers. Then, the last student to return to class will be the one to role-play the manager."

After the simulation, the class provides feedback about how the "manager" handled the situation. Included in the discussion about workplace diplomacy, defusing tension, and explaining hard decisions is another pointed–but tacit — lesson: Leaders don't straggle in last. This is part of a philosophy that it's necessary both to include formal courses in leadership, as well as incorporating its concepts and principles implicitly into all other components, in the MBA program.

Students today approach leadership from a slightly different perspective than in the past. While authority figures ought to be leaders, leadership in practice has less to do with position and rank than with behaviour. The formal element of leadership, linked to status and responsibility, definitely matters, but the ability to be a leader matters to managers whatever their place in the hierarchy.

Learning about leadership from less traditional sources also plays a role in education. Dr. Rowe points out other readings as ways to learn about leadership in practice. "Reading books about leadership by business leaders is valuable, but so are other sources: We know Tom Clancy mostly for his techno-thrillers, but he also wrote a number of non-fiction books about leadership within different military settings that I've found valuable. Novelists also can demonstrate a grasp of good leadership in their fiction."

In other words, studying good leadership, whether by talking directly to experienced leaders, reading about their troubles and triumphs, even considering historical or fictional leaders, remains one of the key tools for acquiring this skill.

Source: CanWest News Service, via