top of page

Leadership is more about 'practice' than 'theory.

Lessons from recent Leadership Academies

Summary of article key points:

Leadership is more about practice than theory, even if theory can inform some relevant insights as part of a leadership development programme.

Leadership is a blend of art and science. Some leaders are born / pre-equipped better than others (nature), but intelligent training and development (nurture) can enhance virtually anyone’s leadership capability.

Theories and models have a use, but only to underpin “practice” in leadership and real world outcomes.

Functional skills and previous performance are no guarantees of future leadership capability.

You will only get the leadership qualities that you select and train for.

The cost of promoting without leadership skills and then desperately seeking to equip people with adequate leadership skills can be high in human and economic terms.

Well-designed internal retreats and / or leadership academies can help when they match enhanced leadership awareness and capability to actual business needs.


Main article:

For centuries much has been written about the “science” and the “art” of leadership.

Most of us have read and absorbed elements of this wisdom over the years (and sadly often some of the 'trendy' come and go fads rather than the wisdom).

Many have then subsequently pondered that age-old question about leadership; “are great leaders born, or are they made”?

Based upon our experiences we have found effective leadership capability tends to arise from a little of both in terms of settling that ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.

Sabre’s recent work with a number of leadership teams and academies has confirmed that whilst there are many valid theories and models for the “science” of leadership, it’s often the “art” of leadership that still evades adequate capture and definition.

Many businesses simply don’t get it right, but it’s reassuring to see those that do reap the positive rewards that flow so evidently from putting in the effort.

It is certain that nature does equip some people better than others in terms of their leadership traits (from a genetic, neurological and thence a behavioural perspective). There are those who just seem pre-loaded with healthy enough measures of IQ, charisma and enough EQ to meld it all together in a way that gets them and their people to where they need to be.

Arguably the honing of these skills that may at first glance seem to be gifted from “nature”, can be attributed in at least part also to a degree of “nurture.” For example, the development of complex neurological systems and patterns that drive much of our behavior (social systems of the brain, core belief patterns and embedded personality) can be traced to responses to external stimulus over the course of a lifetime.

It is equally certain that proper approaches to ‘nurture’ can be used to raise the bar for virtually anyone who wishes to play the leadership game by enhancing awareness of their own strengths, and areas of weakness as they manifest day to day.

Discipline is then required to act upon those insights of self-awareness to help cultivate better leadership capability for their own personal and professional circumstances.

One thing we often see is that being gifted in a particular functional skill or specialization, even to the point of genius, is no assurance that you can then lead a group of former peers in that field (or indeed any other).

Regular experiential “practice” of leadership comes into play as a valuable tool for enhancing the quotients of leadership talent that are gifted or acquired from our own recipe of nature and nurture. In the cut and thrust of day to day work life we don’t always have adequate time to discern the true source of, and impact of our leadership and team role styles.

Current research and models from such emerging fields as neuroscience confirm some leadership theories and debunk others, and are often very useful in framing approaches and delivering ongoing insight.

They are at the end of the day however just more tools for the toolbox, with leadership capability itself something that needs to be lived and developed day to day and powerfully linked to real world outcomes.

One of the clearest examples that I have observed was in the military when being selected for and subsequently entering into Army Officer training. Whilst not all attributes of military leadership are relevant to commercial or non-military endeavours, it’s safe to say that many are, especially with respect to the human dynamics of leading under pressure.

For Officer selection the emphasis was first and foremost upon personal leadership capability (and the potential to hone it further for a military environment). It was only much later after rigorous training in general military skills and leadership that relevant specialist streaming was done for narrower specialisations and functional skills.

In commerce the reverse is often the case, where people are selected and promoted firstly with their “functional” skills and credibility strongly in mind (e.g. a great engineer, lawyer, stockbroker, salesman) with their leadership skills seldom given the same rigorous analysis as their functional results.

The Officer selection process was designed to reveal “leadership” potential first via a careful blend of psychometrics and behavioural tests followed up with a host of mental and physical challenges that were rigorously observed by an experienced leadership selection panel.

Their emphasis for selection was first upon core leadership traits exhibited under pressure, and the potential to polish those. It was only much later that the aptitude for possible functional roles was to be explored.

Functional experience and past performance, whilst taken into account if it was present, was never taken as an assurance of future leadership capability.

In commerce the best and brightest performer in a functional sense may not be the best person to lead a team of their former peers (unless they have been equipped by nature and nurture to lead also). The skills for leadership often exist outside of our functional skills, and are deserving of attention.

The military naturally values both individual leadership capability, and functional proficiency in an Officer’s chosen trade post graduation (e.g. Infantry, Armour, Artillery, Intelligence etc), but the term “General Service Officer” is used to describe Army Officers upon graduation, and is used to imply that it’s the “Officer” bit (your designated status as a leader) that comes first, and any functional / technical proficiency that may come later is second.

So much so that in theory a General Service Officer can be moved to or be seconded into another military role or command should it be required of them. Of course you won’t get far, or get much respect form peers or subordinates if you don’t have some credible functional capability also, but the foundation is first your personal “leadership brand” which can be transferred into almost any other challenge.

The military doesn’t always get it right, but there is much to be said for the “leadership first” approach given to seeking and honing “Leadership DNA” as part of the overall process of developing organisational leadership talent. This in tandem with functional capability is ideal. Both matter, but the “personal leadership capability” bit is often overlooked in commerce (or considered as a clear second to ticking all the boxes on functional results and skills).

We have all seen people who are highly adept specialists in their given field (e.g. engineer, lawyer, doctor, stockbroker, IT professional) given leadership roles after getting runs on the board functionally speaking, without necessarily coming equipped with the requisite inter-personal and leadership awareness to handle the “non-functional” challenges of leadership.

Even being a respected genius at your chosen trade, does not ensure that you may end up out of your depth when asked to lead a cohort of your former peers (unless you have the “leadership bit” sorted first)?

The low morale, high turnover, friction and inefficiencies that can arise from poorly lead dysfunctional teams costs a great deal in both personal and economic terms. This is where teams that on paper may have all the boxes ticked for functional brilliance with their professional skills, experience and qualifications can fail through poor leadership and poor teamwork.

In a military environment the price paid for this is often instant, but in business it’ can be slower and more insidious, but the outcome is the same, your team takes casualties and loses.

The ideal package for a leader is perhaps having enough functional proficiency to establish credibility, whilst also ensuring that they have been given ample opportunity to properly explore and develop their own leadership capability before being advanced to lead others. There is thus far less chance of being caught out of their depth in the all-important “leadership bit”.

So how can business get the balance right?

It is our assertion that businesses can ‘cherry pick’ from the very best of the military approach by carefully designing and delivering their own internal leadership academies to target existing and emerging leaders. This enables people to build and develop upon existing leadership skills within the critical context of what they actually need to do and deliver within the business.

Time taken “outside” of the business, but very much “about” the business can really pay off when leadership development is tailored to meet business needs.

The blending of theory and practice in facilitation can be done carefully to ensure constant linkages back to a leader’s daily planning, interactions with their own teams and daily execution. The careful and intelligent exploration of personal leadership styles needs to be matched to personal leadership plans and real world business scenarios.

We often use the Belbin Model as a powerful and evidence-based way to explore the impact of a leader's behavioural strengths and weaknesses on their leadership style and teams.

Theory can be carefully linked to real world and targeted experiential content linkedintelligently to individual profiling and learning. Leadership can be lived and “practiced” throughout.

All approaches must be of sufficient sophistication to meaningfully engage intelligent leaders (certainly not just any tacky reality TV show rip off team games or treasure hunts). This is very much along the lines of what most successful military academies embrace, and that is to take the time to properly select leaders then develop and hone personal leadership capability itself as a powerful enabler for better functional capability and success to follow.

Some well selected theory is fine, but at the end of the day it’s all about putting it into practice.

Yes there is a price to pay in terms of taking key people outside of the ‘day to day’ business for a time, but it’s important not to forget that ongoing development of leadership capability is still very much “about the business” when it’s done well.

Investing in leadership capability in this way removes the “lucky dip” approach of selection primarily for a person’s functional skills, then finding out all too late that real world productivity and lost opportunities has been caused by poor leadership that transfers into low performing teams.


bottom of page