Can Leadership Be Learned?

The words both start with L-E-A, but can leadership really be learned?

As a consultant, I have the pleasure and challenge to work with a variety of different teams. I am a team of one, but I collaborate with agency teams (such as Happy Cog, whom I’m working with on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum project), internal client teams, freelance designers and developers.

Sometimes I’m brought in by an executive on the client side. Sometimes I’m brought in by an agency who has already won the client. Sometimes I’m brought in by a consultant to the client, who is helping them to build a team.

Almost every time, it’s incredibly unclear who’s leading.

I mention Happy Cog above because I fall over myself with excitement every time I get to work with them. Not just because they’re some of the most talented, most professional, most revered people working on the web today — but because everyone’s role is crystal clear, and every team member can point to the project lead in under 3 seconds. Not only that, every team member respects the project lead and follows their lead. It is in NO way a dictatorship, but it is also not a sociocracy — “a system of governance using consent-based decision.” It’s a meritocracy, where the lead becomes the lead because he demonstrates that he can lead, and that he’s willing to.

It’s a deep honor to work with these people, and have the opportunity to do things right, and well. But at the same time, it has made me acutely aware of the leadership problems that I have faced on almost all of my other projects.

Since I am always brought in as a consultant, I am never the true project lead because it is ultimately not my responsibility to implement the solution and integrate it into the business. One day I would very much like it to be, but that’s simply not the case right now. While I do currently get to lead almost all of the user experience phases of these projects, I still have an overall project lead that I report into — and in order for my work to be successful and impactful, the leader has to possess some pretty specific qualities.

My expectations for a leader are:

  • To set clear goals, and to continually articulate them in written and verbal form to the team
  • To motivate the team to believe in their vision
  • To recognize and nurture the expertise that each person on the team brings to the project
  • To assign actionable tasks with measurable results
  • To express their appreciation for the contribution that each team member makes
  • To be decisive and confident
  • To ask team members for their input on key issues, but to always take responsibility for making final decisions
  • To stay calm
  • To ask for help when they need it
  • To put the needs of people above the needs of things

I very rarely come across people who possess these qualities, and who take pride in not just what they do, but how they do it. I’ve been spoiled by working with Happy Cog, and I worry that I’ll have a really hard time working with people who don’t meet these expectations.

Part of my responsibility as a consultant is to clearly and respectfully communicate to my clients what I need from them in order to be successful. But I have to ask myself: Can leadership be learned? If it can, do I have the authority and chutzpah to express my expectations to the person who’s supposed to be my leader, or should I simply use this list as a rubric against which I evaluate potential projects and working teams?

I’m sharing my thoughts with you as I’m going through a period of discovery, so not all of this is entirely clear in my mind. I would love your honesty and guidance in helping me thinking through some of these issues.

Thanks in advance for your advice and understanding.

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  1. Robert says


    I recently ran into this post by Jack Welch:

    I think it sums it up nicely.

    It is your clients responsibility to set the right organizational structure and appoint the right people involved in the project. You can and indeed should express your wishes beforehand to your client.
    You could discuss things directly with the leader if the project does not go as you expect. However in the end it is not your job to train or guide the leader, if the leader really is not up to the task you should raise it with the project steering comitee (or whoever is responsible, there always should be someone who is). You gain nothing by being silent, especially if it endangers the project.

    Hope this helps a little, good luck!

  2. says

    Yes it can be learned but not everyone wants to be or is a leader.

    At some point you will be required to show leadership and direction. Suggest a large part of this is understanding that different people require different approaches. This can be both rewarding and challenging :)

    Also there is lots to say about Design Leadership and helping teams get on the same page, iterate when necessary and bring teams back to the design direction and “core”

    Good stuff!

  3. lwcavallucci says

    Great post, Whitney. I do think that leadership can be learned. Every time a person is asked to take some sort of leadership, from one aspect to the total project, it provides experience in which they can grow from and be more comfortable taking on a leadership role in future situations.

  4. sharonvillines says

    There is a throw-away line at the beginning about sociocracy that is so partial as to be incorrect. In sociocratically governed organizations, consent decision-making is normally only used in setting policy — in setting budgets, choosing leaders, job descriptions, defining objectives, etc. It is not used on a daily basis for operational decisions. The use of consent decision-making in setting policy is to ensure that each person is equivalent and has control over the decisions that affect their work. This produces workers that are more engaged and committed, and creates more effective organizations.

    Leadership is highly valued and each person is expected to develop and use leadership skills within their own domain of decision-making. A nice post on leadership that is entirely within sociocratic thinking and practice.

    Sharon Villines, co author of We the People, A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods.

  5. SteveAlleyne says

    I would add to your list the following: To identify and remove the obstacles in your teams path before they hit them. – This is more along the lines of managing politics and relationship building with stakeholders, vendors, etc.

    Having a definition that means something to you is key to being and effective leader. Else you'll just flounder like many folks who get jammed into positions they don't understand or fit.

    My take on it is that an effective leader at any level is just another member of the team and needs to recognize that he/she owes a contribution like everyone else involved in the effort. And what they ad is no less specialized.

    Can it be learned, sure. Conditionally. As long as the student is cognizant of their shortcomings, can supplement their talent with learned skills and leveraged experiences, AND they have the same passionto lead that you have for UX…

  6. dshen says

    I think that leadership can be learned or taught but that's not the issue. The issue is whether or not someone can take what they have learned and apply it continuously, day after day. It is easy to go to class but it is not easy to build a new habit, which I think leadership is. You don't use leadership once; you need to use it every day over a very long time. Thus learning leadership is very much creating a new habit. This is an essential issue with learning practically all management traits.

  7. synapticmishap says

    Nice post, Whitney. From the little I've seen of other businesses, as you say, there are an awful lot of crap leaders out there. And I've worked for a few of them, of course.

    My take, like a lot of the other people here is that leadership can be learned, but only if some of the core competencies exist in the person already. You can only teach someone so many leadership techniques. After that, they need to have certain qualities as a person to be able to execute on these techniques.

    And of course, it goes without saying that they need to actually care about doing a good job. In my experience, although people say they care, their actions often conflict this. And it's all too easy as a manager to kid yourself that you're a great boss and an awesome leader, as it's a post that requires a lot of self reliance. There aren't many people who are your equal who can call you on your bullshit.

    I think there are lots of people who won't ever be a great leader, not because it can't be taught, but because they don't have the necessary qualities and/or care enough about doing a good job.


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