June 16, 2008
Blog reader Fiona King, who works for Job Profiles, a company that helps people select careers that appeal to them, sent me an email about a list of free online leadership courses that she believes would be of interest to readers [“The Manager’s Handbook: 80+ Open Courseware Collections to Help You Be a Better Leader,” by Jessica Merritt, 3 June 2008]. The list is timely. When economic times get tough, education and training are often the first things that get slashed as budgets tighten. I think that is a mistake and incredibly short-sighted. I’m a big believer in training and education. On-line training may be one way that organizations can provide some training and still watch the bottom line. Merritt introduces this particular list of courses this way:
“Although becoming a leader may seem simple, the fact is that there’s a lot of consideration that goes into management. You not only have to stay on top of your team, but make sure that you’re fostering communication, growth and productivity. Here, we’ll take a look at a number of high quality courses that will show you how to take care of these issues and more.”
I know few people who believe that “becoming a leader [is] simple.” Leadership is difficult; especially if one does not possess the traits of a “natural” leader. I also believe there is an enormous difference between leadership and management. Merritt seems to think the terms are interchangeable. This is surprising since one of the courses on her list is entitled, “Management vs. Leadership.” In that presentation, which asked 162 professionals to describe the difference between the two, M. Al Zoubi wrote:
“Management is working in the system; leadership is working on the system. Managers gain authority by position; leaders gain it by influence and character. Management is reaching goals; leadership is fulfilling a vision. Management cares about efficiency; leadership is concerned with effectiveness.”
A leader must at times be a manager; but a manager may not be capable of being a leader. Moving back to the list, a quick review shows that at least a few of the “courses” are simply presentations looks filled with interesting or inspiring statements. For example, one presentation is called “Leadership Mashups: Innovation.” My first thought was that it would teach one how to create environments in which the “Medici Effect” could take place. Unfortunately, it contained a series of motivational slides containing statements like this one from Albert Camus:
“Great ideas, it is said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear … a faint flutter of wings; the gentle stirring of life and hope.”
Not exactly the kind of meat into which one can sink his or her teeth and come away satisfied and certainly not what I would label a “high quality course.” Not every topic on the list, however, is simply a slideshow. Some of the links lead to actual courses. Take, for example, the topic “Practical Leadership.” That link takes you to an MIT Open Courseware site that allows you participate in a real course. Other links take you to case studies, like the link entitled “Defying Gravity.” The course description promises, “In this course, you’ll see how some leaders make the impossible possible.” Unfortunately, the “case study” provides plenty of questions, but no answers. If you think you’ve had a bad day, however, consider the individual in the case study who had just been appointed to become the principal of poorly performing elementary school.
“You have recently accepted a position as a principal in the heart of an urban environment at an elementary school. Central office administrators inform you of the school’s challenges over the past 4 years: 1) Drive-by shootings during the school day; 2) Prostitution rings within the community soliciting business around the school’s campus; 3) Drug dealers conducting business on each side of the school; 4) The neighborhood ‘crack house’ is located less than 400 feet from the school; 5) On average, only 80% of the students attend school each day; 6) Only 25% of students are meeting or exceeding state test scores in reading or math; 7) Parents report they do not feel welcome in the school; 8) Students identify their school as a “’ghetto school’; 9) Teachers report low morale; 10) Community organizations within the school community report a disconnect with the elementary school; 11) Over 50% of the staff and faculty have left within two years; 12) Teachers are hired with no or less than 2 years of experience; 13) Over 75% of the students speak only Spanish at home; and 14) Past principals resigned from their position within 4-6 months of committing to the school.”
Turn that school around and you have not only “defied gravity” you can genuinely label yourself an inspired leader! As you can see, Merritt’s list of 83 courses varies greatly in content and usefulness. There are 13 links to sites that will help you “get started with learning about management and leadership.” In addition, there are 6 links to sites that “will teach you why your behavior is vitally important, and what you can do about it.” Six links take you to sites that ensure “your communication skills are up to snuff.” Another three links take you to sites that “ask you to take cultural issues into your leadership consideration.” Eleven links connect with sites dealing with finance. Four links connect with sites about productivity. The largest number of links (17) connect with sites that help you deal with people. As Merritt writes: “Without a team, you’re not a leader, so learn how to properly deal with people through these courses.” Four links take you to sites that Merritt promises will help you “learn how to properly build your management strategy.” There are five links to courses on ethics. Another five links take you to sites dealing with project management. Four links connect with courses on how organizations work. Finally, there are five courses that don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories (e.g., “Governance and management in the not-for-profit sector” and “Competitive information and disinformation”).
Although I didn’t visit all 83 sites for which links are provided, I suspect that there are some nuggets to be mined by corporate training departments or by individuals simply looking to broaden their general knowledge about leadership and management. Thanks again to Fiona for providing the input.