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Quinn, Wooten and DeRue
  Quinn, Perry Wooten, DeRue

Leadership Learning Curve

4/13/2011 --

Ross professors discuss what it takes to lead today and how to best develop leaders.

The following article appeared in the March edition of Leadership Excellence magazine.

The term "born leader" often is invoked during times of change and disruption when leadership is at a premium. Are leaders born fully formed or are they developed through experience? How does one acquire those qualities Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff?"

Leadership can be taught, but it requires more than lectures and books, say three Ross professors who immerse students in action-based scenarios, simulations and challenges that pull people from their comfort zone and expand their leadership capacity. Introspection and self-assessment are key components.

In this conversation, three experts in leadership development describe their teaching methods and identify the qualities that define effective leaders. Lynn Perry Wooten, Scott DeRue, and Robert Quinn are members of the Management and Organizations faculty at Ross, Recognized by Leadership Excellence as the best at developing leaders and change agents.

Q: Can leadership be taught?

Perry Wooten: Yes, leadership can be taught. Moreover, it is a continuous developmental process. So skills need to be sharpened and leaders need to invest in developmental opportunities. Teaching leadership is more than just analyzing cases and listening to lectures. Itís learning what to do and how to do it. It should be an action-based learning experience that calls for awareness, self reflection, and the application of new skills and concepts. Teaching leadership demands stretch assignments, where the leader is learning how to bring out the best in the team and to create extraordinary organizations.

DeRue: Leadership is not a subject that you learn from a book or lecture. Leadership is a practice that you learn through experience. To learn leadership you have to live it. At Ross, we do not teach leadership. Rather, we design a set of developmental experiences that challenge and enable our students to learn key leadership principles, discover and build on their strengths as leaders, and expand their potential as leaders.

Quinn: We, for example, teach an Executive MBA course. There is always a subset of highly placed people who have led major change projects. They see themselves as leaders and they are very cynical about having a leadership course. In that class we expose them to concepts they do not understand and we give them challenges that are outside their comfort zone. The results are transformational. They regularly report, "This course changed my life." They begin to see resources they could not see before. Leadership can be taught, even to people who think they cannot be taught.

Q: How do you bring the right leadership qualities out of people?

Perry Wooten: You assess, reflect and create developmental opportunities. This demands that leaders create a vision, set goals for what they want to accomplish, and act upon that vision. You also help a leader identify the supporting cast that will enable the vision and help the leader stay on track. Leaders should be encouraged to identify the essential resources needed to achieve goals and develop an action plan to build these resources.

DeRue: People are not born leaders. Certainly, people are born with select qualities that might make leadership come easier to them or more natural for them. But everyone can improve their leadership capabilities and can ultimately become a more effective leader. No matter what set of qualities a person is born with, leadership is learned and developed through experience. To bring out a personís leadership qualities, you must challenge them to lead themselves first, challenge them to lead others second, and finally, challenge them to follow the leadership of others. At Ross, we challenge students on all three dimensions.

Quinn: The notion of leading self first is not at all simple. People naturally resist it. That is why we give them developmental experiences, to pull them outside their comfort zone. They discover they cannot succeed with the current assumptions they make about themselves. They have to surrender the ego and move forward doing things they do not know how to do. It pulls them into a new state of learning and into the development of a new identity. They become more effective versions of themselves. They become empowered and empowering.

Q: In todayís climate, what makes an effective leader?

Perry Wooten: In todayís climate, effective leaders know how to lead under pressure. They create organizations that have a mindset for preparing for unexpected events. For example, this may be through scenario planning. They create a learning organization that focuses not only on developing personal mastery, but also leveraging the knowledge of the team to achieve organizational goals. When the organization confronts challenges, effective leaders work to build a culture of resilience through collaboration and innovation.

DeRue: The foundation for effective leadership is having sound judgment in the face of uncertainty, having the courage to act when others do not, and having the utmost integrity. Beyond those foundational elements, effective leaders must be able to construct a vision for the future, focus and inspire collective action in service of that vision, and build high-quality relationships within and across organizations.

Quinn: Now think about it. What is new here? The answer is nothing. What made an effective leader 3,000 ago is what makes an effective leader today. So why is there such a demand for leaders? First, people who think they are leaders are not necessarily leaders. They are talented managers. Second, people responsible for leadership development have no idea of how to help people face uncertainty, develop courage, and live with integrity. They do not know how to teach vision, inspiration, and the development of high-quality relationships. If there is a strength that makes Michigan the number one leadership program, it is that we have a faculty that understands how to actually teach leadership. It is the Michigan advantage.

About the professors:

Lynn Perry Wooten is clinical associate professor of strategy and management and organizations and co-author of Leading Under Pressure (Routledge Academic, 2010.)

Scott DeRue is the Bank One Corporation Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations and focuses on how leaders and teams in organizations adapt, learn, and develop over time. His research has been published in the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, and Leadership Quarterly.

Robert Quinn is the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Professor in Business Administration and professor of management and organizations. He recently co-authored Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).

They also contribute to the leadership development courses offered by Ross Executive Education.

Visit the Leadership Excellence website.

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,