Opinion: It's Time to Invest in Leadership

Can you do anything to grow new leaders? Can leadership be taught? Can it be learned? If so, how?

It's definitely coming. I'm starting to hear the whispers, the talk. It reminds me of the days when we were discussing Y2k but not yet doing anything about it.

Do you remember? It started with a buzz around the water cooler. "You know that this thing won't work when we get to the year 2000. In the '60s, the programmers decided to save a few bytes by assuming the 19 at the start of the year field -- no one thought that this stuff would be used for so long. We're not even sure that we have the source code. Someone's going to have to do something about that someday before it's too late."

Well, I'm starting to hear the same sort of buzz, although this time, it's not about the software, it's about the people.

"Have you noticed that most of our managers and executives are about the same age? They're all baby boomers, and they're going to start to retire in the next few years. We're not sure that we have the managerial bench strength to fill these roles. Somebody's going to have to do something about that someday before it's too late."

Soon, we are going to have to start preparing the next generation of technical leaders to accept responsibility, to carry forward. But so far, not too much is happening. I sense that this is the year when many organizations are going to start getting serious about planning for this inevitability.

But this time, as opposed to the Y2k event, legions of consultants, contractors and outsourcers won't solve the problem. If you want new and effective leaders, you will need to grow your own. It will become a tight market for buying talent, and the talent you're able to buy won't come with loyalty.

This leads us to several important questions. Can you do anything to grow new leaders? Can leadership be taught? Can it be learned? If so, how?

Of course, there are legions of classes being offered on "leadership skills." But a five-day class, a personality inventory and a 360-degree evaluation will not inculcate the depth required to guide a smart, dedicated and, frankly, difficult technical staff.

In her new book, Leadership Can Be Taught (Harvard Business School Press, 2005), Sharon Daloz Parks captures the dynamic and difficult nature of guiding people to learn to lead. As part of her treatise, she documents the teaching of Ronald Heifetz of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has been evolving an effective approach for nearly two decades. The course he teaches is built around his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap Press, 1994).

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