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Can you teach leadership?

Can you teach leadership? The countless providers of leadership courses, exercises and tools out there would shout a resounding ‘yes’ to this question – and no doubt have many examples to prove it. But, despite increasing investment by HR in leadership – a subject regularly cited as a top business priority – it appears that success in this area is elusive.

According to the Kenexa High Performance Institute, in terms of effective leadership, the UK ranks 17 out of 21 countries, in global research of 29,000 employees. Our score is a paltry 47% - below the global average of 55% and 25 full percentage points behind India.

Given Kenexa also finds, from a study of 143 multinationals, that leadership effectiveness accounts for 10% of a firm's earnings per share, this statistic is worrying - and leading some commentators to question if HR is spending its money correctly.

Anthony Holmes, author of books in this area, bemoans the 'mumbo-jumbo' on leadership. He claims no-one in HR has ever found a way of identifying leaders in advance of needing them and that HR has failed to get a handle on the whole issue.

Even more contentiously, he says talent pools are a waste of time, pointing out that the best leaders are those who disrupt and say the things HR and the business do not want to hear.

The crux of the issue is that too often leadership is couched in pseudo-academic terminology and the latest faddish thinking. The experts interviewed for our cover feature agree it should not be so complex. Leadership, they say, is about stepping back and contemplating, bringing tomorrow's thinking into the business today. It is not about specific skills and traits to accomplish a particular job, such as leading change.

HR comes in by enabling that conversation to be had and by promoting an environment in which people feel confident and are able to spend time reflecting. Interestingly, it may not be HR sponsoring leadership in business anyway - if our Top Story research is anything to go by.

London South Bank University and wellbeing firm Vielife spoke to 50 finance directors and 50 HR directors to get their thoughts on people strategy - and it makes surprising reading. Two-thirds of FDs say leadership is a performance driver, compared to 54% of HRDs; 70% of FDs rate recruiting top talent as a driver; only 58% of HRDs agree. It seems finance is more aware of measurable impacts on productivity than HR.

Of course, HR's readers are well aware of ROI and business impact, and none more so than the winners of the HR Excellence Awards 2011. Congrats to all the winners and finalists, who not only prove the impact of their strategy, but show true leadership and excellence in our field.