Election season inevitably triggers assertions of leadership. Candidates for every office seek to sell themselves as the leader we have all been longing for. Little, of course, is said about the content of that leadership, for it is assumed that winning or holding office is by itself a sign of leadership. Nor, sadly, is any serious attention given to the meaning of the concept of "leadership," which functions mostly as a placeholder or an undefined label of uncertain content that affixes itself to persons in high position (or desirous of gaining high position). Candidates claim the ability to lead, insist they are strong leaders, speak of how they want to lead us into the future or out of the recession. Rhetorically, the term calls to the minds of the audience visions of generals leading a charge or leading an army out of a desert; the assumption seems to be that we are in need of a leader, which is to say that we need to be followers. The language of leadership seems to come with the territory of political campaigning -- and as campaigns extend more and more to cover the entire time between elections, we hear constant talk of leadership, still without any serious attempt to explain what is meant other than to equate leadership with a particular person's office or favorite policy.
But there are places where the concept of leadership is taken seriously enough to try to plumb its depths. Indeed, much has been written and said about "leadership" over the past several decades in the academy and within the professions. Doctors, lawyers, business people, executives of various types, and (of course) military officers are encouraged to become leaders, as are members of sports teams, churches, and virtually every other kind of civil association. Entire courses on the subject are offered at military academies and business schools, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Lectures and workshops -- delivered to rapt audiences of business executives, salespeople, community officers or activists, association heads, youth group coordinators, or professionals of various sorts -- encourage audience members to become leaders (as if it were the primary feature of the good life) and explore the personal qualities of the effective leader. They offer exercises designed to develop those qualities. Leadership institutes abound in every field of endeavor, and "future leaders" are trotted off to them in the belief (or hope) that they will make a difference. There exists, in short, a veritable leadership industry employing thousands and entertaining (or spending the dollars of) millions more.
The foundation of the leadership industry, it should be obvious, lies in the belief that leadership can be taught. To a certain extent, it probably can be. There are certain fundamental features of good leadership that seem true no matter what the field of endeavor. But the features of leadership vary considerably with the circumstances, and, as both Garry Wills and Nannerl Keohane have noted, skills that make for a leader in one context do not necessarily (or even likely) make that same person (or someone who has emulated that person) a leader in a different context. Keohane, for instance, asserts that it is probably not true that a good business leader is necessarily a good political leader (or vice versa), despite the tendency of many (including many with great power) to believe otherwise. Nor can we easily take practical lessons for leadership from the practices of a leader in one field and apply them in a different field. Reading a book about John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, will not make you a good association leader, even if you closely imitate Wooden's practices, themes, language, and beliefs; leading an association or a team of doctors is just not the same as leading a basketball program. In his book, Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, Wills describes sixteen different types of leader, with no claim that the list is exhaustive. The leadership literature is enormous, each book or article laying out what the author believes to be the crucial characteristics possessed by the leader. With multiple types of leader and a host of different traits associated with leadership, there is much to be taught and much to learn.
But learning about leadership is not the same as learning to be -- let alone being -- a leader. I do not become a .300 hitter by reading a book on hitting; I do not become a great quarterback by reading a biography of Peyton Manning. So leadership is more than a body of information or even a set of practices. And to that extent, it is something that cannot be taught, though it may be honed if one already has "it." Leaders -- those who truly lead, as opposed to those who hold high positions -- possess a certain something that cannot be learned in a textbook, in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, in a workshop or lecture hall, or in a biography of Steve Jobs -- a something that interacts in a unique way with the environment in which the leader acts. It may not entirely be the case that "leaders are born not made," but it seems obvious that everyone is not equally capable of becoming a leader. A leader surely possesses certain character traits, deep-seated and deeply rooted habits, that have been developed in multiple contexts over many years. Sitting in a seminar room and taking good notes cannot be a substitute for this long-term inculcation of habits and orientations. Nor can reading a book and attempting to follow its precepts create inside a person those characteristics that do seem to be a matter of birth -- the characteristics we see when we recognize "leadership potential" in teenagers or speak of certain members of the high school baseball team as "team leaders."
Real leadership is both desirable and rare. We desire political leaders who can inspire citizens, who can get people to do what is needed to foster the common good, who can step forward boldly to blaze new trails into a nation's future. We desire business and educational leaders who can see the new and make it happen, who have the nimbleness and flexibility to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances. We look for leaders on our teams -- whether work or sports teams -- who can inspire others to give their best and can push the group beyond itself. But it is not often that we find these leaders. More often we find managers instead of leaders -- to employ a crucial distinction found in the business literature. We find functionaries able to carry out their jobs with success, but not those who bring a combination of insight, charisma, creativity, and nerve to their circumstances. We find people who promise bold new initiatives and ideas, only to recycle the same old, tired policies. Or we find individuals who focus more on their own personal benefit while bragging that doing so actually leads to the improvement of the lot of everyone. The occasions that call for leadership vastly outnumber the real leaders.
What is to be done? I don't believe the solution is to avoid the language of leadership or eschew the attempt to inculcate those traits that characterize the leader. Our organizations and associations need leaders, as does the body politic. What we do not need are men on horseback riding to the rescue bent on leading us passively to the promised land, a better society, or finer future. If we need leaders, it makes sense to try to determine the features of real leadership. And it makes sense to examine the habits and orientations of those we take to be leaders so as to offer them to potential leaders. Remember, leadership can be honed though it cannot be impressed upon unsuitable material; if the material is suitable, however, perhaps we can instill some of the qualities of sound leadership. All those courses and workshops, books and articles -- where they are not simply money machines for snake oil salesmen -- have a role to play: to clarify what we mean by leadership and to offer to those with the inherent capabilities to be leaders in their field of endeavor intellectual and practical structures within which to develop those capabilities. If we are to take control of our world -- certainly a suitable object for citizens of a constitutional republic -- we must develop the basis upon which to reflect and choose our leaders and how they will lead. Otherwise, we are left with what is handed to us by accident and force.