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Learning to Lead

Everyone can learn to be a better leader, and it’s a skill to use every day in big and small ways.

The right skillset can help anyone improve leadership skills, says James King, of the University of Alabama faculty.

The right skillset can help anyone improve leadership skills, says James King, of the University of Alabama faculty.

From aspiring entrepreneurs to military personnel and prospective politicians, those pledged to a paradigm for success find a certain resonance in William Shakespeare’s words: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” 

As the debate continues — “Are great leaders born or made?” —it’s generally conceded that the most revered leaders throughout history were probably products of a convergence of heredity and environment. Born leaders or bred, the consensus among educators at three top state universities is that with work, anyone can improve his or her leadership qualities.

Weighing in on the issue is James King, Miles-Rose Professor of Leadership at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration, who believes anyone can become a better leader with insight into how to attain his or her personal best. “I tell my students it’s like running fast. You don’t know how fast you can run until someone teaches you proper form. You don’t know your top speed until you get some fundamentals. It’s a case of you didn’t know what you didn’t know.”

King, who has taught some aspect of leadership for 20 years, currently teaches a course on leadership and ethics. With any management role, there will be technical elements to be learned, King says, but “leadership skills and the ability to influence people are transferrable across platforms.”

Stan Harris


Stan Harris, Ph.D., associate dean, graduate and international programs for Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, teaches organizational leadership, ethics and change with a similar viewpoint.

“Everyone can learn to lead better than they are currently doing,” says Harris, who professes to a lifelong interest in defining what makes a leader stand apart. “It’s a skill that’s open to all.” 

During his 30 years as an Auburn professor, he’s seen many of his students rise in their respective organizational ranks. His goal is for everyone to be a better leader, regardless of whether they aspire to be at the top of the heap, in middle management, or simply head of a group.

“Leadership is a skill transferrable across all situations,” Harris says. “It’s largely about interpersonal kinds of skills, having a vision of where you want to go and having the skills and empathy to learn how to motivate people, and getting them to willingly commit to a set of goals. That can work in a family, a small team, a religious organization and the world of work. But you have to have the knowledge and experience in those different areas to be persuasive.” 

John Kline, Ph.D., distinguished professor of leadership and director of the Troy University Institute for Leadership Development, learned leadership through personal experience teaching communication and leadership at Air University in Montgomery. From 1991-2000 he served as provost for Air University, the federal employee equivalent of a two-star general, with responsibility for faculty, academic programs, libraries, technology, budget and support of 50,000 resident and 150,000 distance-learning students annually. 

“All leaders must have character — that’s who you are,” Kline, says. “Second, you must have competence — that’s what you can do. And third, the belief that you can lead others in the organization. How do you gain confidence? By having the right character and competence and practicing them.”

Kline, 77, says a leader must be able to relate to people, as well as being able to communicate and motivate. 

“A leader is born or made or both,” Kline says. “The same leadership skills apply for all disciplines, but you apply them depending on the situation. If I’m going to be in business, I’ll have knowledge of business. If I’m in the military, I’d better know military. I think the skills are transferrable, but you have got to have the knowledge and competencies to go with it.”

John Kline


When King begins his course at UA, he poses that question of whether leadership can be taught. Regardless of the response, King wants students to realize they can improve their ability with the right skillset. 

“Whether you’re unleashing something you’re born with or creating something in this time frame, you are going to get better,” King says. “Some people believe leadership is something you are born with and you are stuck exactly where you are. Even if you believe you have all the leadership ability you’ll ever have, I want you to understand taking that leadership to fruition requires all these other things that we can learn together.”

A component of leadership education in each course involves students examining the leaders they hold in highest esteem and why those people are held in high regard. King says those ideals are not necessarily useful as an endpoint — no one can teach a student to be the like of Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi, but it’s a good starting point to analyze what makes these figures effective leaders. 

“It’s a good starting point because it’s a known quantity,” King says. “You can break those people down and look at what they did well or what they did poorly and learn from it. It’s a common mistake for someone to say ‘I’m going to read the biography of Steve Jobs’ and say, ‘I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs.’ That’s probably not possible.”

“You can’t be Churchill, but you can find things to learn about from Churchill. It’s important to think about what you can learn from the person as opposed to imitating them.”

Individuals in all walks of life lead every day in isolated incidents — perhaps just small increments of time — in which they guide someone through a problem. It’s often the opportunity of acting with conviction at the right moment that defines the person in charge. 

“Leading is really an ability to step in during those moments when your skill set is needed and use that for the betterment of the team,” Harris says. “To me, the essence of leadership is influencing people so they feel committed to a direction. You don’t get that by forcing people with command and control. If you use all those things, you just get compliance. The ability to influence and make things better is really what the core of leadership is.”

Harris emphasizes the importance of finding day-to-day situational opportunities to make a difference rather than feeling “paralyzed at the thought that you won’t be a wonderful epic leader.” 

“I want people to think about leadership not so much in the grand ‘I’m going to change the world’ way but in 15 minutes in a team meaning, ‘I am going to make a tremendous difference in the direction we are going to take,’” Harris says. “People do micro-leadership throughout the day, and they never have to be MLK or Kennedy. Grand leadership is great, but small leadership is great, as well.”

Harris calls empathy and respect the gold standards of leadership. With those qualities, a leader can convince people to support a cause. In his class, the first topic of discussion includes what he terms “a heavy dose of self-awareness.”

“It’s important to know your own values and your own strengths,” he says. “We have a whole workshop dedicated to peeling back the onion to find a little more about yourself.”

Harris similarly scrutinizes these archetypes to learn the attributes contributing to their success.

“When you look at the traits that distinguish Martin Luther King and others and distill that information, you find they had a lot in common — having a very clear vision, a strong respect for people, good communication, high integrity — those are traits many people share,” Harris says. “Often some of the great leaders (students) come up with didn’t have a lot of power. They had the vision to inspire people for a better future, company, culture or society.”

Kline, who focuses on servant leadership, also emphasizes the importance of delegating effectively. Leaders must be able to recognize competencies in those around them and to put their trust in those who warrant it. He teaches core values that became important to him early in his work with the Air Force: integrity, service before self, and excellence in all you do.

“The first thing I teach is that you must lead so that you can serve others in the organization,” he says. “It’s not about you.”

His second edict is that every leader should have mentors to let them know when they’re headed in the wrong direction and should be able to listen. Communication is critical, Kline says. “If you’ve created a rapport and have communication skills and can relate to people, they will probably be able to relate to you.”

Kline says when students mention leaders who inspire them, from George Washington to Mother Teresa, “Most of the time when you get right down to it, they were servants.”

Regardless of the path a potential leader will follow, these instructors believe leadership can be learned and the raw natural ability refined. 

“You can teach folks with very little experience all the way up to executives, and everybody gets broadened a little bit,” Harris says. “The ability (to lead) is there within everyone. Someone highly extroverted and outgoing may have an easier time engaging people, but there are also people who are much less outgoing and introverted who are great leaders. The important thing is unleashing those skills and honing those skills and giving someone the confidence to step up when it’s their turn.”

Cara Clark and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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