Don’t assume that all people have leadership skills

I’ve been a student of leadership for forty years. In 1980 I defended my doctoral dissertation on strategic planning and I’ve continued to study the topic of leadership since then.

One fallacy I constantly see is the assumption that someone can lead well even though he or she has never had any training or experience in leadership.

This approach doesn’t work in other professions: to become a doctor, accountant, or pilot, one must study for years; degrees and certifications must be earned. Sadly, there is no such criteria for leadership. Anyone can call herself a CEO, manager, entrepreneur, or leader and not get arrested for practicing without a license. 

Contrary to popular sentiment, leaders are not “born”; leaders are “made.” There is no “leadership gene” that some people are fortunate to have been born with and others are lacking. Just as it takes years of training to become a commercial pilot, it takes focused training to become a good leader.

Said differently, an effective leader must develop certain skills. For instance, a leader is responsible for formulating the mission, vision, goals, and plans for her organization. But without training, most people don’t even know what these elements are, how they differ, and how they are related. Leaders are also responsible for selecting quality team members (it could be argued that this is the leader’s most important task), but many people who serve in a leadership position have had no training in this area.

We must not even assume that a professional degree qualifies someone to lead in his field. For instance, just because a physician is good at his job doesn’t mean he can lead well in his field. Nor should we assume that because an individual has achieved a professional degree or certification (physician, accountant) in one particular field, that he will lead well in other fields. For instance, the post-nominal M.D. doesn’t automatically qualify someone to be a leader in his church, mosque, or synagogue. Knowing how to read x-rays doesn’t prepare one to make important organizational decisions. Similarly, a degree in theology (learning ancient languages, apologetics, preaching, systematic theology) does not equip one to lead well—leadership requires a separate skill set. 

Many non-profit organizations put people into leadership positions simply because they embrace the organization’s core values or because they have achieved professional status in another field, or both. These qualifications may be necessary but they are not sufficient. To lead well one must possess leadership skills.

Here’s a list of 12 important leadership skills.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

10 Replies to “Don’t assume that all people have leadership skills”


    However, grant me this … Some leaders have God given talents in His Plan, & timing

    RE: Chuck Swindol.

    PS … Lots of Hymns last Sunday (EXCELLENT) & DOLICEMERE (SP?) WAS GREART

    Bill Butterworth… the Philidelphia ’68 Pomntiac Candy Apple Red was a great segway
    to Mathew chapter 14, vs 25-33


    1. Barton, thanks for taking the time to write. Chuck is a great leader; I’m blessed to call him “boss.” Last Sunday was, indeed, a joyful time in church.

  2. Really appreciate your words here, Don. It’s amazing how often those without qualification find themselves leading. In another sense, we’re all still in process– even the most seasoned leaders. Thanks for your leadership and your magnificent example to me.

    1. Thanks, Wayne, for adding to the conversation. You’re right-we’re all on a steep learning curve. Thanks for our friendship.

  3. This essay does not address the many problems associated with APPOINTED leaders, i.e. those who have been put in charge because they possessed “qualities” deemed very important by their appointees.

    Most of us have had the misfortune of being under the authority of such “leaders,” chosen solely because they would certainly put the interests of those who chose them over those whom they would lead. Indeed, most leaders we are most likely to have to deal with fall into this category. They are not so much leaders as they are managers, and as often as not they are to be strenuously resisted.

    1. Charlie, thanks for writing a response. I only tackle one topic per post, but you bring up a valid topic that needs to be discussed. We all find ourselves (at sometime in life) reporting to a leader who is not leading well…for any number of reasons. Sometimes we choose to leave the organization, other times we choose to stay and do our best to serve the organization. Thanks again for writing.

  4. Don, recommend you read Beyond Band of Brothers, personal memoirs of Dick Winters, central figure in Ambrose book/HBO mini-series Band of Brothers.

  5. Don,

    One of your best articles yet and I totally agree. The challenge comes in trying to move aside those not gifted in leadership to make room for those who are gifted. Unfortunately, it seems to me that often the person who has an “impressive” title assumes that they are a good leader. I have found that in my experience that those who are able to make changes are often more concerned about the poor leaders loyaly than their leadership skills or development of others.

    This is my first post. I am so grateful a friend introduced me to your site. It is encouraging to know that there are others who view the value of leadership as I do as well as its importance to the future and success of an organization.


    1. Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to write. I do believe that leadership skills can be learned (it’s not just a matter of giftedness), but they must be studied and learned; they don’t show up unsought. Usually, and unfortunately, an incompetent leader is hard to dislodge. Thanks for subscribing to my blog; I hope it is beneficial. Don

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