Learning to Lead

CAMBRIDGE – Public-opinion polls show that citizens in many democracies are unhappy with their leaders. This is particularly true in Great Britain, where a number of members of Parliament have used their housing allowances to enhance their income, sometimes legally and sometimes not. Some analysts predict that only half of Britain’s MPs will be returned in next year’s election.

But, whatever the failures of particular British legislators, the issues go further than merely allowing voters to “throw the rascals out.” There is also a question of how successful leadership is taught and learned in a democracy. A successful democracy requires leadership to be widespread throughout government and civil society. Citizens who express concern about leadership need to learn not only how to judge it, but how to practice it themselves.

Many observers say that leadership is an art rather than a science. Good leadership is situational. In my book The Powers to Lead , I call this skill “contextual intelligence.” The ability to mobilize a group effectively is certainly an art rather than a predictive science, and varies with situations, but that does not mean that it cannot be profitably studied and learned.

Music and painting are based in part on innate skills, but also on training and practice. And artists can benefit not merely from studio courses, but also from art appreciation lessons that introduce them to the full repertoires and pallets of past masters.