Can Leadership Skills Be Learned?

Empty wooden chairs in classroom. Explore “Can leadership skills be learned?” with Lorri Sulpizio.

Think of your favorite athlete, pop icon, or even president. What makes them so exceptional? American football coach Vince Lombardi once famously said, “Leaders are not born; they are made.” Certainly, the $366 billion leadership development industry would agree with him. So, was Lombardi right? Can leadership skills be learned?

First, let’s clarify why leadership skills need to be learned. The skills that we think are leadership-based are male-dominated—and we are in the process of shifting away from these power-over, authoritarian leadership models because they just don’t work. But, we need to teach and learn the skills required for new, effective leadership and build the capacities that support those skills. 

Can Leadership Skills Be Learned?

Absolutely, leadership skills can be learned! (Thinking there are born traits that can’t be learned is a holdover from male-dominated leadership models, but that’s a topic for another blog post…) For the record, the full Lombardi quote goes like this: “Leaders are not born; they are made. And they are made by hard effort, which is the price we must all pay for success.” Just like sports conditioning, leadership development requires intentional and focused effort. 

How Can Leadership Skills Be Learned

Everyone knows that leadership skills are important. But, why are they so hard to learn? And, how can we build them in a concrete, actionable way? We start by 1) identifying the key skills that make up effective leadership, then 2) building the capacities that support those skills. While the list of skills needed for effective leadership can get quite long, consider these:

  • Flexibility 
  • Making sound decisions
  • Giving and receiving feedback 
  • Clear communication 
  • Being a strategic thinker
  • Negotiation 
  • Accountability 

Each of these skills requires underlying capacities. For example, flexibility requires tolerating discomfort and uncertainty. Making sound decisions requires active listening, being a learner, and reflection. Negotiation requires an open mindset and active listening.  

Leadership development is a $366 billion industry, and most of these efforts provide little return on investment. One big problem is the failure to train and develop the core capacities that drive the skills. The reason? It’s hard and uncomfortable to dig deep, face our liabilities, and truly find ways to change. Instead, programs stay at the surface and attempt to help people build skills without the necessary capacities to execute and sustain those skills. In essence, it’s like building a house without a foundation and expecting it to stay standing on mud. 

You can grow these capacities—and that is how you actually learn leadership skills. 

You might be wondering, how do capacities support leadership skills? Here’s an example: if you want to improve your skill of flexibility, you’ll need to grow your capacity for tolerance of uncertainty and discomfort. To grow that capacity, you need to:

  1. Recognize when you feel uncertain or uncomfortable and your traditional responses to that feeling: don’t tap out, remove yourself from the situation, tell a joke to release the tension, etc.
  2. Spend time in low-risk situations where you can practice holding steady while you build your tolerance for discomfort, i.e. put yourself in new environments or with new people.
  3. Practice by increasing the risk of uncertainty and discomfort in different situations—by trying something new where you are likely to fail or when the outcome doesn’t go exactly as planned—and watch your flexibility grow.

Capacity-Building As a Parent: Here’s a great example of how skills and capacity are interrelated. If you want to build the skill of “parenting with connection,” you’ll need to develop your capacity for patience. You can do this by identifying, finetuning, and practicing your window of tolerance. With more patience, you have better boundaries, improved listening, more self-awareness—and, of course, more connection. (And, way to go modeling all of that for your little ones!)  

To Learn Leadership Skills, Grow Your Capacity

When you build one capacity, you’ll see growth in multiple skills. These capacities are connected and contribute to cascading and compounding leadership growth. Here are five capacities you can build that will exponentially improve your leadership skills:

1. Self-Awareness 

The real work of leadership starts with self-awareness. When you know yourself, you know your strengths and weaknesses. You know your blind spots (and we ALL have them!), your triggers (we ALL have these, too), and the patterns and habits that often get in your way. You know what you need to show up as the best version of yourself, and how to support yourself when your best version is hard to find (i.e., when you’re tired, going through a major life event, etc.). When you develop self-awareness, you know when to ask for help. When you improve your capacity for self-awareness, you will improve your skill of receiving feedback, creating authentic connections, moving through conflict, and accountability. 

Try This 

Pay attention to yourself. Notice when you are upset, triggered, happy, or other strong emotions. What are the conditions that lead to that emotion? In your mind? In your body? Ask people you trust how you show up when you’re stressed, exhausted, sad, elated, etc. (we are always our best selves when we are rested and fed, but how often does that happen?!).

2. Be Reflective

Reflection is a key capacity for growth and improvement—to review and assess the past, connect to your present, and consider your future. How did a situation unfold? How might it unfold next time? What worked or didn’t work? What might work in the future? What would you change if you could have a do-over? Who on your team excelled and who might excel in a different role? How did you show up? 

Reflection helps us get to know ourselves and fine-tune how we show up. (Remember capacity 1: self-awareness.) Reflection also helps us be more present with the people around us. For leaders, being present and meeting people where they are is a key skill. Reflection supports strategic decision-making and prevents rushing to quick decisions or conclusions, allowing you to make clear assessments in real-time. 

Try This

Spend 3-5 minutes each morning thinking about your day, and at the end of the day, consider what went well and what you would do differently. 

3. Be a Learner, Not a Knower

The best leaders know they don’t have all the answers. They don’t show up to every meeting and interaction with the answer. They aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” They are naturally curious about the world around them, ask open-ended questions, and consider all perspectives before making a decision. 

This is really a mindset. It’s being willing to 1) be wrong, 2) not have all the answers, and 3) not know it all. (This is hard for leaders because leaders are expected to know it all and do the talking and teaching.) To build the capacity to be a learner, you need to tolerate discomfort (nobody loves to suck at things!). Learners build the leadership skills of competence and big-picture thinking.

Try This

Take in new content—read, watch, and listen. There are so many podcasts, masterclasses, and online free learning options. Find content and conversations outside of your comfort zone that are new and different. Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart. 

Though building the capacities beneath each skill is nuanced, you can see a general pattern of 1) recognition and awareness, and 2) practice.

So, the next time you find yourself in a less than optimal personal space, (i.e., triggered, hangry, not your best self) and need to build your capacity on the fly, take a moment to recognize what you are feeling, then think of the action that will support your growth. This is the practice part. We need to do more than just think about these capacities. We need to practice bringing them to life. 

4. Practice Active Listening

New and effective leadership requires exceptional communication skills. The key capacity underneath effective communication? You guessed it…listening!  This means giving your undivided attention to the speaker and setting aside your own needs and priorities to hear what the person in front of you has to say. It means listening to understand where others are coming from and what they are trying to share with you. People are more likely to come to you regularly if they feel like their thoughts and opinions are valued. The active listening capacity builds the skills of negotiation, fostering relationships, and clear communication. 

Try This

The next time someone gives you a point-of-view that you think is blatantly wrong, rather than prepare your rebuttal, ask two follow-up questions that would help you better understand their perspective. Don’t offer your opinion unless asked.

5. Be Open

Leaders are called upon to make hard decisions, have tough conversations, and resolve conflict. More than ever, leaders need to be skilled in leading with equity and inclusion in mind. The capacity for this? Be open. 

Being open-minded helps us seek out and take in more ideas and perspectives. When we are open, we expand our vision and willingness to consider other beliefs and opinions, and we are more likely to respond rather than react. This is a prerequisite for making sound decisions and resolving conflict and a key part of having successful courageous conversations. 

Additionally, being open to new and different experiences is a way to practice uncertainty and discomfort (part of being a learner!). When we are open to challenges, alternatives, risks, and being wrong, we have more compassion and grace for ourselves and others. The capacity for openness will give you a greater capacity to build other leadership skills. 

Try This

Recognize when you are making a quick assumption or quick conclusion. Institute the “pause” before you reply or react. 

Leadership Is a Practice

With the knowledge that leadership is learned, we begin to understand and integrate that leadership is a practice available to anyone. It’s something you do, not who you are. You can rinse and repeat any of the leadership skills you learn—and their corresponding capacities. Practice makes progress.

“Leadership is like love. To say ‘I love you’ is not enough; it requires action. True leadership requires action.” – Lorri Sulpizio

I’m Lorri Sulpizio, a leadership coach, speaker, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging expert. Get to know me, explore my offerings, and join me in the journey toward self-awareness.

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