Self-Taught Leadership — Is It an Option?

I’ve taken classes in leadership, conflict management and a whole host of related topics. But the most valuable leadership experience I’ve had are nowhere near official. When I was in high school, I worked in my synagogue’s Hebrew school. At first, I tutored students, but then I started teaching classes. I usually got the youngest kids, although on days when we were short-handed, I was known to have kids starting at preschool and going all the way up through third grade, in one classroom.

Have you ever had to convince a three year old to do what you say? Your own children don’t count, by the way. When you’re a stranger, you have to convince them to trust you before you have any hope whatsoever to get them to listen to you. And then, you’ve got to communicate with someone whose grasp on most concepts, let alone vocabulary, is extremely different from your own. Preschool classes are a crash course in leadership: the most extreme examples of trust-building and communicating with groups very different than yourself that you’ve ever experienced. If you want to learn leadership, my recommendation is to find a group of preschoolers to teach.

The Truth About Self-Taught Leadership

There are thousands of books on leadership — look in the business and management section of any bookstore and you’ll see a disproportionate number. I firmly encourage you to go out and read about leadership: it’s an interesting topic and you’re guaranteed to learn something.

But you’ve actually got to learn leadership in the field. It simply isn’t something you can understand until you’ve done it. No amount of book learning is going to establish you as a fantastic leader. It’s only when you’re actually leading a group that you can be a good leader. In that sense, you can’t teach yourself leadership. You can only learn it from the groups that let you lead them. After all, it’s easy enough to talk about group dynamics, but seeing them play out — like when little Susie tries to make little Zack eat sand on the playground — is a whole new can of worms.

Learning Leadership is Learning from Mistakes

You’ve got to get out there and make some mistakes if you want to learn how to be an effective leader. I’d recommend a low-stakes environment, if you can find one. The great thing about teaching a Sunday School class full of preschoolers is that you only have a couple of hours, once a week, in which to screw up. And if something goes horribly wrong, you can pull out a bag of Skittles, cheer up the kids and hand them off to their parents before the sugar buzz hits.

There are other opportunities that can be less scary than taking on a full leadership role somewhere. You can volunteer, you can take on a small project, you can do something online — becoming a moderator on a forum can be an opportunity to build some leadership skills! You’ve got to seek out those opportunities yourself, though. Start small, but keep at it. You can’t learn leadership any other way — even those fantastic seminars and training sessions I’ve been to haven’t taught me anything my preschool class didn’t drive home first.

Image by Flickr user mrbeck

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