Why learn leadership (even if you don’t want to be a leader)

“What’s so important about leadership? Why learn to be a leader? What if I don’t want to be one?” I get these questions a lot in my seminars and in conversation, often preceded by “What is it with you Americans?”
I often let others in the audience answer the question. Developing leadership skills reveals their value, whether you use them to lead people or not, so a few people answering usually effectively addresses the questions.
I answer with a few perspectives.
First, people like to interact with people with solid leadership skills — that is, they are attractive — and life tends to be better when you are attractive, whether socially, in business, or in any other situation involving others. Mastery makes you all the more attractive.
To clarify, I use leadership to mean the practice of a set of skills that motivates others to work with you and to get things done. Columbia Business School’s core leadership class breaks leadership down to

  • Decision making
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution
  • Perceiving others
  • Influence and persuasion
  • Motivation
  • Groups and teams

Others break down leadership into other categories of skills. This just happens to be the way one school does it.
Second, these skills are useful under any circumstances. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a situation you’d like to change. If you don’t have the skills to do anything about it, you have to take it or leave it. If the change requires interacting with other people, leadership skills enable you to do something about it.
Most meaningful change requires working with other people. Being helplessly stuck in a situation you don’t like is nearly the definition of a bad life, at least in that moment. Being able to do something about it is how you improve your life. Many non-leadership skills enable you to improve the non-social parts of your life, like cooking and fixing things. Leadership skills help you improve the social parts.
By the way, Columbia further grounds the six sets of skills in

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional intelligence

Adding this foundation leads to the third point, which is that the person you’re leading may be yourself. The value of being aware of yourself and your emotions and motivations is probably obvious. It’s the alternative to being reactive and blowing in the breeze.
However valuable those skills, they are difficult to teach to someone without them — those who would benefit from them most. Developing and practicing leadership skills is one of the best ways to increase your awareness of your emotions and motivations and how you act on them.

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