I recently read an article that addressed whether leadership can be learned though study. It was a disappointing article to someone writing a book on leadership and one that I regret has gotten quite a bit of alacrity for its author’s praise of practice over study. I would never presume to discount experience, life’s greatest teacher (quotes like this are often attributed to many people including Caesar, Cicero, and Pliny the Elder).
“We can teach from our experience, but we cannot teach experience.” Sasha Azevedo
I would say, however, that discounting study in favor of practice is a short-sighted strategy. You won’t know if a person is a good leader simply by what books they’ve read. You will know them by their actions.
“Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” – 1611 King James Bible, Matthew 7:20
How are we then to continue to improve, without avid study? I would say that improvement through practice alone will yield a poor leadership harvest. Mentorship/modeling are valuable tools. Vygotsky’s theories on scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development and Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Theories both show the value there. Consider this: what can a mentor teach but her own learning and experience?
“Is it what the teacher teaches or what the student learns?” -Vergere in “Star Wars, The New Jedi Order, Traitor”
As leadership practitioners, students, and teachers, it is incumbent on us to verify our understanding of the theories that we apply in practice. Only a mindful approach that incorporates robust leadership feedback mechanisms will guard against haphazard application of leadership principles that may easily occur in an organization.
One of the major benefits of study and practice is the intentionality of the act of leadership. We are able to develop as leaders by absorbing best practices through study and contemplation of acknowledged leaders and pioneers in the field and then applying those principles in the practice of our leadership activities. Developing a learning culture ensures that an organization (or a leadership team) will not stagnate, but will continue to thrive and grow.