Leaders Can’t Be Trained

Leaders Can’t Be Trained

5 min read

Michael Beck

Despite the hundreds of books, programs and websites devoted to leadership, the truth is that leaders can’t be trained.  Leaders need to be developed.  Hopefully this doesn’t seem like a simple matter of semantics, because it isn’t.

Let me illustrate this distinction.  Leadership is more about WHO you are than about what you do or what you know.  Two executives can do and say the same things but get very different results – even when they do and say those things to the very same person!  Although what you say and what you do are important, effective leadership is even more dependent on HOW you do or say those things.  This explains why the actions of those two executives can elicit such different responses.

You can train people about what to say.  You can train people about what to do.  You can even show someone how to do and say those things.  But getting them to change how they go about doing things and getting them to change how they go about saying things is a whole other story.

Leadership is about who we are, and it’s this “how” of doing, saying, and being that defines who we are.  I think a good deal of “who we are” is captured within the competencies of Emotional Intelligence, developed and made popular by Daniel Goleman.  There are 12 EI competencies, with five of them being the one’s that ultimately affect our effectiveness as leader.  These five competencies are:

1) Coaching and Mentoring – The ability to develop others

2) Inspirational Leadership – The ability to develop a compelling vision and to lead with it

3) Influence – The ability to utilize persuasion

4) Conflict Management – The ability to resolve disagreements

5) Teamwork and Collaboration – The ability to build and guide teams

Let’s briefly examine each one of these competencies with respect to training vs. development as it pertains to leadership.

Coaching and Mentoring

As a professional coach, I know many professionally trained coaches.  They’ve gone through a curriculum of coach training from an accredited coaching school.  And yet, although they have the necessary skills and knowledge to be a good coach, a number of them are really rather poor at coaching.  Conversely, I’ve come across associates who are reasonably good at coaching, yet have never had any formal coach training.

How is this possible?  How is it that someone with great coaching skills is mediocre at coaching?  And how is it that someone without any formal training is very effective at coaching?

The answer of course, is in HOW they apply their coaching knowledge and skills.  In order to be effective as a coach, one must, at the very least, be aware of one’s own emotions, have control of one’s emotions, be empathetic, and have good judgment.  The reality is that each of those traits must either be developed or be natural to a person.  They just aren’t things that can be “trained”.

Inspirational Leadership

Leaders need to be inspiring.  They need to instill pride, they need to hold and communicate a vision, and they need to inspire an organization and its people to aspire to excellence.

Here’s the challenge…  People aren’t simply inspired by the right words.  The right words spoken by the “wrong” person will have only a minimal effect.  In order for a leader to move others to action, he or she needs to be someone who others admire and respect.

How does someone garner the respect of others?  It’s obviously through our words and actions, but once again, “how” we say what we say and do what we do determine the impact those words and actions will have.  “Who we are” is something that can be shifted and developed, but it cannot be “trained”.


Effective leaders are influential.  We influence people by our words and actions, but of course, it comes back to how we’re viewed by others and how we do and say the things we do.  Honing and improving those abilities comes down to development and not training.

Conflict Management

Conflict and challenges are inevitable in business, and a good leader has the ability to diffuse and resolve situations as they arise.  In order to be effective in this effort, a leader needs to have the respect and trust of those involved.  How we conduct ourselves during these times is important, but even more critical is how we’ve conducted ourselves in the past.  Establishing “who we are” takes time and is not something that can be trained – only nurtured and refined.


In order for a leader to successfully foster an atmosphere of collaboration, he or she must be good at the previous competencies – coaching, inspiring, influencing, and resolving.  Clearly this ability once more rests on things best developed and not trained.

Now that we’ve made a case for leadership development and one against “leadership training”, we need to address how this development occurs.  Here’s what has to happen:

1. An objective assessment of one’s competencies needs to take place.  Since “how” we do and say things is habitual, we’re generally blind to our shortcomings.

2. No one needs to be excellent in every competency in order to be an effective leader.  Based on the objective assessment of our leadership skills, we need to focus on one or two areas to target for improvement.

3. Enlist the help of one or two trusted associates to help point out (in a loving fashion, of course!) when we fall back into old patterns.

By being mindful of your words and actions, and being persistent in your efforts to improve, you’ll find that over time – there is no “quick fix” for what we’re achieving – your effectiveness and impact as a leader will increase.  Not only should we strive to develop ourselves as leaders, but need to work to develop those around us.  Ultimately, a great leader is someone who develops other leaders.

About the author:

Michael Beck is a Business Strategist and Executive Coach.  For more articles on leadership, personal effectiveness and personal productivity, please visit www.michaeljbeck.com

  • Quote of the Day

    “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

    — Warren Bennis