Building a community of leaders

Warren Bennis (center), David Penner (left) and the Coro Fellows at the Center for Civic Leadership Los Angeles

A discovery about leadership. A couple of years ago I met Warren Bennis as we worked with the Center for Civic Leadership, Los Angeles. As we were personally introduced, he asks me what I did. I told him I taught leadership. He looked at me curiously and asked if we could actually teach leadership. I was surprised by the question and was even more surprised that this question was coming from him, Warren Bennis, the leadership champion.  At the same instant, I also realized that my answer was a ‘shorthand notation’ for a much longer answer.  His question pushed me to further explore the nature of leadership and learning.   I have concluded that leadership by its nature cannot be taught. But it can be learned.  Rather than attempting to teach leadership my role is to create an environment in which it can be learned.  This requires a place and opportunity to talk about it, look for new ways of doing things, and to practice more or less in real time, a place where what we learn tonight we practice tomorrow morning and an opportunity to reflect tomorrow evening what we attempted that morning.  Albert Einstein observed this when he said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.

An environment for learning. In order to build a community for learning we must begin by creating a safe place where, free from the immediate pressures of work but yet within the context of that work, people can begin the journey of leadership development. This journey must include:
1. Building awareness, both of themselves and the true nature of leadership;
2. Creating a leadership vocabulary, a language, in which one can express ideas about leadership and it’s responsibilities, both individually and in groups (thus developing a common language and share experience that encourages the discussion of leadership across the organization);
3. Participating in the ‘dialogue of the discipline’ so that we can understand and influence the larger discussion of leadership beyond our immediate context and organization; and
4. Practicing in a safe place that encourages individuals and teams to try ideas newly learned, a place that provides support and feedback and allows risk for failure as well as success.

Mindset. Within this process and in order to increase our learning, we do so by:
1. Remaining curious and withholding judgment until there has been enough time to learn from each new idea and situation;
2. Listening to what is happening around us and to the individuals who make up our “personal organization” (larger than just department or team);
3. Asking good questions thereby increasing our opportunities to learn and to help others to learn; and
4. Building community so that diversity can produce innovation, unity and the appropriate response to the future.

Not a luxury. Perhaps if we create such a community for learning, individuals within it can learn and practice leadership.  The alternative is that we just let it happen.  That leaves a lot to chance.  It also favors the continuation of doing things the way we have done them in the past.  But we are facing the future, a future that is certain to be different than the past.  It is not a luxury to spend time and effort on leadership development; it is a necessity.


David S Penner, PhD.  Loma Linda University