Leaders are Teachers

Think back to your favorite teacher in high school or college. What was it that you like about her? How did she reach you? What was the environment like in her classroom?

My favorite teacher in high school was my history teacher, Mr. Lilien. While I don’t remember a whole lot of the history he taught, I do remember his classroom. Information moved two ways in his class. Not only did he teach us history, he taught us to teach him. In fact, a couple of my classmates used Bruce Springsteen's album “The River” as an innovative basis for teaching Mr. Lilien about pop culture. He was a diligent student and shared his deep analysis of the album. The class ate it up.

Teachers like Mr, Lilien always create an atmosphere of openness, learning and growth that allow their students to take risks, make mistakes and learn. They also recognize the duality of teaching- at any one point, you can be a teacher or a student.

Questions are More Important than Answers

Today’s great leaders in corporate America understand this duality as well. They know that to engage employees in the mission at hand, questions are more important than answers. They also give the space to allow anybody to be a leader, or a teacher.

Creating an environment where constant learning is expected and fostered is a notable aspect of great organizations. These organizations value the questions over the answer. In his book Legacy, James Kerr writes about the All Black rugby team, the most successful sports organization in history. The All-Blacks continually ask questions of the players and have a process that empowers the players to lead the team. This atmosphere allows anyone on the team to stand up and be a leader or a teacher. When I was on the sales management team at TriNet, John Turner always told us “the answer is in the room.” The willingness for leaders to be open to learning from their charges fosters a learning environment.

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology and former Director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College.  In “Are Teachers Really Leaders in Disguise”, an article published by Psychology Today, Dr. Riggio notes that great teachers share the same traits as great leaders around their ability to provide a transformational experience. Along with Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, and Individualized Consideration, Dr. Riggio cites Intellectual Stimulation as a cornerstone of transformational leadership: “It involves challenging students/followers to engage their minds and to think creatively. The very best teachers get students to think about things in new ways, and challenge them to greater intellectual achievements. They encourage creative and novel thinking, rather than discouraging it.”

“The Answer is in the Room”

Organizations that create an atmosphere of continual learning growth also value coaching as a way for people to become better so they can be better leaders. Coaching, too, highly values the questions being asked in any engagement. The better the questions the coach asks the more inquiry and growth the client can achieve. That is the work that Helge Hellberg and I do at www.betterleaders.us with teams and individuals in support of creating a learning culture.

In fact, research by Josh Bersin of Deloitte found that some of the most important elements for nurturing a learning environment include a management culture which is open to mistakes, building trust, giving people time to reflect, and creating a value system around learning.  Notably, his report High Impact Learning Culture®:  40 Practices for and Empowered Enterprise finds the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization's learning culture.

In summary, to create an environment of continual learning and growth makes good business sense. To do that you can emulate the teachers, like Mr. Lilien, who inspired you. Like those teachers, integrate the lessons taught by those around you. Value the questions over the answers. Ignite intellectual curiosity in your team to further engage them. And, offer coaching as a means for all employees to learn about what drives and limits them and to grow as leader/teachers themselves.

Mark diTargiani, Executive Coach