How Leaders Learn to Lead

How do people learn to be leaders?

That’s the question leadership consultant and thought leader Robert J. Thomas answered at a leadership academy event I recently helped organize. Speaking from his book Crucibles of Leadership, Thomas demonstrated that simply taking a course on leadership would do little to transform leadership abilities. In fact, knowledge plays only a small role in a leader’s effectiveness, despite the high price often invested in higher education.

Here is a sample of the elements that transform ordinary people into great leaders.


The “crucible” of going through challenging experiences (both in life and vocation) has a transforming effect on a person’s leadership ability. I’ve found this to be the case in my own assessment of hundreds of c-suite leaders as well. It’s interesting to note (according to Thomas) that early in life (or career), leaders may find themselves “pushed” into a crucible experience, while later on they tend to “leap.” As they mature, effective leaders learn to recognize, seek and steward the crucial experiences that come their way.


The half-life of new knowledge is incredibly short. To grow, leaders must form the discipline to transform an “ah-ha” moment into a commitment to practice until they experience a breakthrough. Not only that, leaders are self-aware enough to know the circumstances they need in order to practice sufficiently. To demonstrate this point, the participants in our academy individually identified a skill they practiced to proficiency and compared it to another they gave up. In almost all occasions, talent and knowledge were not the difference. It was the ownership, commitment and supporting circumstances – almost all of which could be recreated in the future.


The “why” behind any endeavor usually determines the success of the outcome. But it’s important to note that a specific purpose often changes over time – even for the same goal. What motivates us at age 20 is often different than at age 30. What drives us to achieve initial success may not sustain us to reach the next level. In order to harness the motivation that success (and practice) requires, we need to constantly refresh our sense of purpose.


Leadership isn’t “taught” as much as it is “caught.” Teachers, trainers, mentors and supervisors all play a role in developing leaders. But the best leadership “teachers” are the ones who can coach a developing leader to understand the key “moves” that must be made in a given situation. The quality of leadership “teachers” a person has access to varies by the individual. That shouldn’t be an excuse. Thomas posed that “A great student can make a good teacher into a great teacher – and an inarticulate leader into a great teaching leader.”


“No one learns alone,” Thomas wrote in his book. For leaders, that means finding, participating and contributing in communities of leaders who are on a learning journey together. Sometimes these communities are created externally (our leadership academy, for instance). In other instances, leaders must create their own.

Becoming a leader doesn’t happen by accident. Effective leaders are diligent and committed. Still, no one is immune from the serendipity of crucible learning experiences. My favorite quote from Thomas’ book sums it up best: “Sometimes events can conspire to make you a leader.” (Tweet)

So what’s your learning strategy when it comes to leadership?

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.