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Leadership is vital in all organisations. As the writers discuss on the subject of Cultivating Leaders in this issue of CDTL Brief, find out if leaders are made or born, about the role education in nurturing leaders and who or what is responsible for developing ethical leaders.

April 2003, Vol. 6 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Developing Leaders
Assistant Professor William Koh
Department of Management & Organisation

What is leadership? For the purpose of discussion in this article, I would like to consider the following simple, but often-used definition: that leadership is the process of influencing a group towards accomplishing its goals.

Given this broad definition, every one of us is a leader or can be a leader, technically speaking. So why are we interested in leadership, if not for the fact that most of us believe in the important role that leadership plays in the success of a group of people or even in the success of organisations, communities and countries? In this context, leadership research and experts have suggested that leaders in the 21st Century need traits such as honesty and integrity. Furthermore, they must have confidence, drive and the motivation to lead.

One suspects these are characteristics that must be cultivated not when leaders are full-grown adults. By then, one’s personality would already have become firmly entrenched and it would be difficult to change. Instead, leadership development and cultivation ought to start within the home: it is possible to argue that all parents should take the first shot at leadership development by imparting to their children all the right values (e.g. honesty, integrity, caring for others).

However given the heavy stress that parents place on academic performance, one suspects that they are doing a great disservice to their children by under-emphasising the importance of acquiring important life-long values. In addition, most parents are not aware that they act as leadership role models, either in the positive or negative sense. All the time, our children look at our behaviour which reveals our implicit values. For instance, extra change given to us at the supermarket checkout counter that is not returned clearly signals to our children that it is all right to take what is not rightfully ours, so long as no one is aware; or breaking traffic laws while driving indicates to our children that following rules are not important; or children told to shut up at home often grow up to be passive and docile employees; and so on. Hence, parents must realise that leadership development of their children starts at home. If we are aware of our roles and the impact we have on our children’s lives, we might make better leadership developers.

Leadership experts have also suggested that apart from those core values mentioned above, leaders in the 21st Century ought to be visionaries, interpersonally competent, skilful communicators and motivators, team builders, willing and able to empower others, and developers of other leaders. I would like to group this set of must-have qualities as core leadership skills. These skills can be acquired: many organisations which have experienced sustained periods of growth over long periods of time—for instance, Johnson and Johnson, General Electric, Southwest Airlines—are known to invest heavily in leadership development activities either through in-house leadership training activities or services provided by external consultants.

Some usual techniques in imparting such skills include the use of classroom lectures, leadership exercises, a outdoor adventure training, case analyses, 360o evaluation (which is basically a technique involving the evaluation of leader by his/her boss, peers, subordinates and the leader himself/herself) and so on. Since different people learn differently, most organisations tend to use a variety of techniques and tools (instead of relying on a single method) to ensure that these important skills are imparted effectively amongst the maximum number of leadership trainees. If parents are pivotal in imparting leadership values, the role of top level leaders in organisations are equally vital in sending all the right signals to reinforce those values. Top-level leaders who are honest, who care, who show love and concern as well as who empower, will make it that much easier for new and younger leaders in their organisations.

Sandwiched between the corporate world and the home is the range of educational institutions such as primary/secondary schools, junior colleges, training institutes and tertiary institutions. Do they have a role to play in leadership development? Definitely! To begin with, they can help to reinforce values (e.g. honesty, integrity) emphasised in the home and should thus seriously consider placing the imparting of values on par with the imparting of academic knowledge. Next, educational institutions provide excellent training ground for skills in teamwork, communication, motivation, interpersonal relations and planning/organising that will certainly benefit students well during their adult life.

For instance, skilful crafting of classroom activities and assessments such as putting greater emphasis on team projects will mean that students will spend more time in team-oriented discussions; such activities will help students to see the advantages of teamwork, tolerate differences and enhance their group decision-making skills. Non-academic activities such as sports (especially team sports such as basketball, volleyball, etc.) and co-curricular activities (e.g. the various uniformed groups, choirs, symphonies, bands) also provide excellent leadership development opportunities.

In addition, the behaviour of educational leaders (e.g. teachers, principals, lecturers, top management officials) will be crucial. Like it or not, they are leadership models. What they say and do will shape the leaders of tomorrow.

To conclude, developing and cultivating the next generation leaders is a complex life-long task that takes a concerted effort from all concerned parties such as parents, educators and current leaders in the workforce. The earlier this fact is recognised, the faster we will enable more of our people to become effective leaders for the 21st Century.

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Inside this issue
Cultivating Leadership & Stewardship
Leaders: Born or Cultivated?
Teaching and Leadership
Cultivating Leaders in Learning Communities
Cultivating Leadership Qualities in Students
Developing Leaders
Education—The Journey to Moral Leadership and Moral Citizenship