“The Education of a Leader”

The title of this post is the same as the title of the review of a book written by H. W. Brands for the Wall Street Journal.* Brands was reviewing Michael Gerhardt’s new volume, Lincoln’s Mentors.  

The book is an account of Lincoln as autodidact. Crucially, Brands writes, Lincoln did not stop learning at his first inauguration. “Until the very end of his life his self-education never ceased.” Moreover, precisely because he was largely unschooled, “he benefited from not knowing what a person was supposed to learn.” Lincoln presumed, in other words, that he ought to learn everything.     

As the title of Gerhardt’s book suggests, it is focused largely on Lincoln’s mentors, five men who at various points in the president’s life served as role models, or guides, for Lincoln to emulate or follow. The point is that Lincoln remained till he died “educable.” Able to live and learn lifelong in ways that testified to his capacity to grow lifelong.

Which raises the question of what does the leadership industry do to further similar learnings over a leader’s life? The immediate response might be – well, the industry already does a lot. There are numberless leadership courses and programs, leadership centers and institutes, leadership exercises and excursions deliberately designed with adult audiences in mind. In fact, many if not most leadership initiatives are targeted precisely at people who already are leaders, or managers, intended to teach them what they do not yet know about how to lead wisely and well.

But, overwhelmingly, these are one-shot deals. Designed to catch a leader at a particular moment in time. Over a year, maybe, or a semester, or a week or a weekend. Most are designed for adult learning, yes. But most are not designed for adult learning lifelong.

What I am suggesting then is a new kind of leadership education. One designed for most leaders in that most leaders are not, like Lincoln, autodidacts. Most leaders are like most people: they profit from programs intended to teach them things they do not know because otherwise they would not know them. In this case what I am proposing is a pedagogy that is deliberately designed to be sustained.   


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