Can Leadership be Learned?

Can Leadership be Learned?

A review of Level Three Leadership by James G. Clawson

Written By Grace Jackson

I’m waiting to pick my daughter up from soccer practice and I watch them drill beneath a blazing hot Seattle sky.  Try-outs are this week, and the girls chase and pass the ball with added fervor as coaches evaluate their every move.  Each player is trying their best, but not all will overcome the intense heat, the mental pressure and the physical demands of competitive play and emerge as a leader of the team.

As I sit in my car, I wonder: Are leaders born?  And if not, can leadership skills be learned?

These questions are answered In Level Three Leadership, by James G. Clawson.  He clearly states that leadership and influencing others to act is a skill that can be learned.  Clawson’s main goal of the book is to guide readers in developing their own personal leadership model.

While no magical recipe or formula exists to create effective leaders, Clawson believes that the ability to lead is deeply embedded in the values, assumptions, behaviors and expectations (VABES) that we carry within us.  Self-knowledge is vastly important before seeking leadership roles.  Understanding and developing individual human qualities, such as instinct, intelligence, communication and courage, will enable a person to design and implement an authentic leadership style.

Know Yourself

Throughout the book, Clawson invites us to delve into our psyches to determine if we have the proclivity or the potentiality to lead.  Through self-reflection, assessments, and surveys and by posing profoundly personal questions at the end of each chapter, Clawson’s approach is to look inwardly at our own beliefs and behaviors first. The exercises and strategies at the end of the book are designed to give clarity to the VABEs that drive our day-to-day actions and behavior.

The notion of knowing yourself before attempting to lead a group is a cornerstone of Clawson’s book.  “The person who knows him or herself well is better equipped, not only to lead, but to lead well.”

Developing Influence:  Why Lead?

Clawson believes that each of us has the capacity to lead and affect change.  By understanding our VABEs, we can choose to make a difference in our neighborhood, church, school, or workplace; each of us contains the basic seeds of leadership.  How these seeds are developed and cultivated will determine our efficacy as a leader.

According to Clawson, leadership is the ability to galvanize an individual or group to change or improve conditions — for themselves, for their mission, and for the world around them.

What is Level Three Leadership?

For Clawson, leadership is about affecting human behavior, and change occurs at three levels:  Level One leadership is affected by visible behavior patterns; Level Two at the organizational level “refers to the rules, processes, guidelines and rituals.” Level Three leadership includes the culture, values, and operating principles of the organization.  Level Three leaders attempt to “influence people’s VABES, as individuals or organizations.”  He states:

Level Three Leadership is leadership is based on the development of respect and the willingness to assert while retaining choice; these techniques include listening, explaining, disclosing, inviting, asserting, visioning, attending, storytelling, and others.  It often takes more time up front than Level One Leadership, but tends to be more powerful in the long run.” (259)

Leading at Level One only – where decisions and strategies are based on outward behavior – is a “formula for mediocrity, not for world-class performance.”  Effective leadership is a combination of the three levels.

 Summary and Evaluation

While the book enabled me to think more broadly about the definition of leadership, some of his ideas seemed repetitive and delved too deeply in metaphysical, philosophical and abstract thought.  Some assignments felt a bit New Age in their scope.  For example, Clawson is influenced by professor and author, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.  Clawson asserts that the most significant question in life is found in Csikszentmihalyi’s book, The Evolving Self.  Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “will I ever be anything more than a vessel transmitting genes and memes of previous generations to the next?” To me, this type of question is a little far-reaching for a scholarly textbook.

However, the book is useful to anyone who is interested in becoming a leader, or for those who just want to know more about leadership. Level Three Leadership provides the framework for a flexible leadership model.  It is not a “how-to become a leader” text, but an exploration of the values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations that drive behavior.

As a foundational book of leadership knowledge, Clawson sheds light on the statement that some are “born to lead.”

Try-outs end and my daughter climbs into our station wagon.  As we make our way home, I think about Clawson’s book and put my thoughts together about a leadership mindset, even for soccer players.

James G. Clawson is a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.  He previously taught at the Harvard Business School, Northeastern University and the International University of Japan.

Grace Jackson is the assistant to the Dean of the School of Applied Leadership at City University of Seattle

Published September 2, 2014



* Indicates a required field.

By clicking SUBMIT, I understand and agree to CityU's privacy policy.