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Leaders as teachers

Managers can learn from teachers, who are a foundational influence on the lives of children -- and who they become.

8 min read




“Life is a classroom. Only those willing to be lifelong learners will move to the head of the class.”  ~ Zig Ziglar

Leadership may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing teachers. In fact, some exhaustive lists of teacher descriptors, such as this one, include such predictable terms as prepared, enthusiastic, and supportive, but mention nothing specific about leadership. Nevertheless, as a former classroom educator who now coaches executives, I strongly believe that there are many things that leaders of all stripes can learn from teachers.

Teachers mold us from our youngest years and give us a foundation for life, regardless of the particular paths that we eventually choose. They are, outside of our parents, the first true leaders in our lives and those that we turn to for knowledge, guidance and direction. Many of us emulated our teachers and wanted to grow up to be like one or more of them.

Lest we limit our thinking of teachers as leaders of children, it bears noting that many educators have transitioned smoothly from pedagogue to national or spiritual leader, using their capacity to instruct and inspire to lead thousands of others, if not millions. Some of the greatest leadership personalities and thinkers in world history were once teachers, including Moses, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu and Jesus. More recent examples of teacher-turned-leader include US presidents John Adams, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, as well as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

While there are many qualities that make teachers natural leaders, there are a few attributes and mindsets that seem particularly apropos for leaders in the workplace to reflect upon and learn from.

Be someone to look up to

In school, children naturally look up to their teachers. Pupils come to school each day ready to learn and be directed. They need teachers who can offer that structure and guidance. Good teachers are consistently mindful of this and aim to be the kinds of adults that deserve student admiration and respect.

This concept applies to the workplace as well. While employees,  particularly experienced ones, are not nearly as impressionable as young children, they still seek leaders that they can look up to, not only for their business acumen but also for their moral and ethical standards. As John Maxwell says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”

Plan with clear, measurable objectives

The foundation of any great classroom lesson is a lesson plan. Strong lesson plans identify, among other things, the instructional objectives that a teacher wants to achieve and the means that she will use in order to get there. In order to know whether an objective has been met, it must be clear and quantifiable, and not rely on fuzzy phrase such as students will “understand” or “believe.”. The same is true in the office. Leaders and their teams perform best when there are clear goals and objectives that are set and agreed upon. Make sure that the objectives are measurable, so that there are no questions as to whether they were met. Quantifiable goals can also motivate people to achieve more.

Focus on engagement

Gone are the days where we most valued the “sage on the stage” — teachers who would lecture or speak for extended periods while students sat quietly at their desks listening and writing notes. Today’s educational environments are designed to be engaging and stimulating in order to capture and maintain student focus and active participation. The workplace is no different. Strong leaders give thought to what excites their people and seek to find ways to ensure that they are engaged and enthused about their work.

Differentiate the learning environment

For a few decades now, teachers have been trained to differentiate their classroom instruction. Children, we know, learn in a variety of ways and bring a diverse range of abilities and interests to the classroom. Teachers are advised to consider different ways to deliver content and to think of multiple avenues through which the students make sense of that information.

One particular way to do this is by differentiating the learning environment. Sometimes it is best to provide whole class instruction. In other cases, cooperative or individual work is a more appropriate way forward. These differences in classroom environments can help students with different social intelligences, such as extroverts (who learn most when given the opportunity to discuss and share ideas) and introverts (who crave the opportunity to think and reflect independently).

Managers, too, should take into account different abilities and interests in order to maximize worker performance. In a powerful TED talk, Susan Cain makes a passionate case for both teachers and managers to structure their environments and build in more time for the introverts in their midst (33-50% of the population). Though collaboration can be extremely beneficial, personal space and opportunity for quiet reflection can be as well. Finding the right balance is a critical leadership responsibility.

The good teacher discovers the natural gifts of his pupils and liberates them.” – Stephen Neil align:center

Leave no one behind

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was enacted by Congress to help support disadvantaged students. The act supplies supplemental funding and resources to help classroom teachers meet the needs of every child. Even without such funding, teachers understand intuitively that their mandate is to make sure that every child grows under their care, regardless of personal capacity.

This concept is much rarer in the workplace, but it can be achieved. Simon Sinek talks about how leaders make their people feel safe. In this TED talk he references Charlie Kim, CEO of Next Jump. Kim instituted a policy of lifetime employment in his company, which means that if you get a job at Next Jump, he said, you cannot get fired for performance issues. Instead, you get coached and supported in order to build your performance.

Kim argues that you would never fire a family member for poor performance. Think of the workplace more as family than as a performance lab and you will bring a whole new mindset to the people that you lead and support. align:center

Bring your passion

About 10 years ago, I met up with a former student. He told me that a few years after leaving my class, his English teacher had assigned him to write about someone who made a difference in his life. “I wrote about you,” he said, “because you were always having fun when you taught.”

Teachers understand the importance of making learning fun, by being passionate about what they teach and presenting it in an engaging fashion. Good leaders in the workplace also know how to dial up their passion in a way that motivates and excites others around them.

Know your why

The concept of knowing your why comes naturally to most teachers. Teachers teach to educate and inspire their students and to make a lasting difference in their lives. Henry Adams captured this so beautifully when he wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

This sense of purpose is often not as apparent to the manager. We can express what we do and how we do it, but cannot necessarily share why we do what we do. Leaders who can tap into the driving force behind what they do and communicate that message to others around them will be far more able to lead mission-driven teams who bring maximal effort and creativity to their work.

Look for teaching moments

Great teachers are always on the lookout for teaching moments. These moments are not the conventional, drawn-up variety that fit neatly into their lesson plans. Instead, they emerge almost organically, such as on a field trip, and add value — sometimes informational and oftentimes moral and ethical — to a class activity or conversation. Teachers understand that teaching moments can connect most deeply with student curiosities and interests and will often be remembered long after regular class content has been forgotten.

Research tells us that leaders who promote teaching (not just learning) in the workplace have a decided competitive advantage. Not only are their people more knowledgeable, but they also integrate the learning much more deeply because of the impact of teaching on our memory and mental clarity. Be on the lookout for opportunities to teach and to let others become teachers of their peers. This will go a long way in fostering a growth-oriented work environment that holds the keys to its own success.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at Get his free leadership e-book, “Core Essentials of Leadership.”

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