If you are trying to become a leader or to improve your leadership skills, you are already a student of leadership. That learning can be formal or informal and both forms have something to offer.

Formal Leadership Training

Formal academic training is provided through our system of higher education in a variety of degree programs. These programs will provide a detailed background in theory and/or practice, as well as valuable interaction and networking with other like minded individuals.  The down side of  university programs is that they are intense, take a great deal of time, and are the least convenient of your learning options.

Workshops and seminars,  often provided by schools, employers, and professional organizations, offer an opportunity to be exposed to a great deal of information in a short time frame, as well as facilitating networking. However, they can be “one shot” deals with no follow up, leaving you on your own to sort out all that new information.

Informal Leadership Learning

Informal learning opportunities abound, essentially in three forms: Reading,  Talking to leaders, and  Observing leaders.The number of books on leadership has no end. Most of the popular literature has its origins in business, the military, politics, or sports. Sorting through all of this is a daunting task and I will tackle that soon in another post.

Talking to leaders

Talking to leaders is much simpler than wading through the extensive, valuable print resources that are available. I am not suggesting that you must talk to a C.E.O, a general, a United States Senator, or a Hall of Fame athlete, but if you can, please do. But it is simpler than that. Here are two examples.

My long time friend, Charlie, was visiting with me recently. We had been forced to shorten our fishing day by an unfriendly Mother Nature, but that gave us the opportunity to visit over some fine craft beer. Recently retired, and a leader in his own right, Charlie was sharing some work experiences and at one point he said that a supervisor of his was “a great leader”.  I asked him why he thought that and he quickly related a series of character traits he admired and respected in this gentleman. But he ended up telling short stories about the things his supervisor did and the conversations they had.

It is that easy. He tapped into the expertise of his boss, and I benefited from Charlie’s perspective of effective leadership.

My second example occurred while on a two week train trip across the United States. My wife and I had the good fortune to meet a number of fascinating people while on this journey. One gentleman is a businessman from  Hong Kong who grew up and was educated in the United States. He graciously consented to discussing some leadership questions as we sat in a viewing car traveling across the Great Plains. As an added bonus, he invited two of his friends and professional cohorts from the United States to join in the conversation. It was a wonderful opportunity to get a cross cultural perspective on leading from a person who has a great understanding of business in both countries. Based on education and years of experience, he has a clear vision and understanding of employee stability, transparency, and employee engagement. In my mind, he is a very compassionate and astute leader. Curiously, the three friends’ opinions differed sharply on employee engagement, but agreed completely on other issues. What an opportunity for me!

Observing Leaders

There are leaders at all levels and areas of life. Your supervisor, religious leaders, a project chair person, a board member or officer from a charitable organization, a department head, a mother, a coach, or a community elder can all offer insights into leadership in one way or another. You can find leaders everywhere, but if you cannot find leaders to talk to, you still can observe leaders.

You may be able to observe the leaders we just mentioned if you cannot speak with them. You can also find leaders in the news or current literature. We watched as Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush led our nation through the attack on September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. What did they do? What did they say? How did people react to them? What did they do right? Wrong? There was much to be learned while watching them, as well as all the people who responded to that tragic event.

On a lighter note, people from the world of sport often give us the opportunity to observe leadership. Football is in full swing, so people in the sport are often in the news and easily observed.  I shared my observations on the leadership of Colin Kapaernick in a previous blog. John Elway is an another interesting study in leadership. After winning the Super Bowl, several members of his team, the Denver Broncos, moved on. He then refused to succumb to what he felt were unreasonable contractual demands from his prospective starting quarterback. Many thought that Denver’s situation would be the team’s demise, but Elway maintained the high quality of his team and they are again among the league leaders. You can take a number of lessons from Elway’s actions and attitudes.

Final Observation

You are best served if you use a combination of all the learning modes discussed here. But the most important thing is that you are constantly learning, on a daily basis. Never pass up an opportunity, however brief or involved, to learn something. And do not be afraid to look at yourself. You probably have a lot to offer, too.