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Seven Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Great Teachers

by Kevin Eikenberry on May 2, 2011

in Leadership, Learning


When people are asked to list the most influential people in their lives, several groups tend to rise near the top. After family and close friends, the next most likely categories are teachers and leaders/bosses. I’ve long said that there is a connection between the skills of a great leader and the skills of an exceptional parent (that is a topic for another day). Today, however I want to explore the connection between teachers and leaders.

Specifically I want to answer the question implied by the title – what are the lessons leaders can learn from great teachers?

Over the years, in a variety of settings and workshops, I have asked people to tell me the attributes of the teachers in their best learning experiences. What follows are seven of those attributes translated into lessons for us as leaders.

The Seven Lessons

Great teachers believe in their students. We intuitively know that we perform better for people when we know they believe in us. When that belief comes from someone in a position of influence (or power) that performance pull is even stronger. There is a second component to this that is at least as powerful: when we believe, we help others build their belief in themselves.  If you want to be a successful leader/coach you must believe in the potential and ability of those you lead.

Great teachers care about student success. The best teachers are invested in their students’ success. They put in the extra effort, and they are patient. They do what it takes to help the student succeed. While they realize their role and willingly play it, they also know that ultimately the student’s performance is the student’s responsibility.  They famous (and powerful) quotation applies here: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care . . . about them!” I don’t believe it takes much mental effort to translate this to our role as a leader, does it?

Great teachers love the subject. You can tell when a teacher loves the subject – their passion and excitement comes through and is contagious.  As a leader, do you love the work and mission of your organization? Are you passionate about how your organization and your team serves the world around you?  If you do, your positive energy will be more natural and easier to maintain. Let your passion show – it will make a difference for those you lead.

Great teachers make learning enjoyable or fun. Think about the best teachers you’ve experienced. Chances are, learning with them was fun!  Great teachers know that we can work hard, learn a lot and have fun doing it. Great leaders lead teams to enjoy their work – they take the work seriously, but still create an environment where people want to be and can enjoy both the process and results of their work. Hard work and enjoyment can co-exist. Great leaders support both.

Great teachers are excellent communicators. To instruct, inform and inspire requires the ability to communicate successfully. This may or may not mean that a great teacher must be glib or a great orator. We all know communication is more than that. Great teachers and great leaders can make their point, but can also ask the right questions at the right time, can (and do) listen intently.  Excellent communication is more than excellent speaking skills; effective leaders know that and practice and consistently improve all of their communication skills.

Great teachers make the learning practical and useful. The best teachers speak at a level and explain things in a way that make sense to their students. They connect lessons to real life and build application.  Leaders do the same thing – they teach and share ideas and skills in an accessible and useful way.

Great teachers see the big picture. Great teachers know that the learning in the moment may be hard, tedious and perhaps even boring. They help students get past these moments by acknowledging how they feel, but by helping them see the big picture. They know that the challenging times are needed to get to the ultimate learning goal – they have a perspective students can’t have and share that perspective to help people move through the challenges.  Great leaders have a similar perspective and help those they lead through the mundane by raising their eyes towards the future.

After writing these seven lessons, two important observations flash in my head:

  1. It is likely only one of these (excellent communicators) is ever discussed in the expectations or even job description for a leader. That fact doesn’t make the other six any less true or valuable. (In fact, by omission, perhaps it makes them more valuable!)
  2. Generally speaking, any leader can do these things – they are as much about choice as they are about skills.

Let me close with a question for you:

Which of these lessons will help you, when you apply it, be a more remarkable leader today?

photo credit emilyonasunday

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Guy Farmer May 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Great post Kevin. I really like the idea of leaders being able to see the big picture. So often, leaders focus on the minutiae of running an organization rather than vital building blocks such as empathy, communication or building a team. I’ve also found that great teachers (and leaders) give their students the opportunity to discover things for themselves.

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Peter Cook June 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Great post Kevin – on the subject of making learning fun, please see the School of Rock at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8237YM4pI0

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