A Purposeful Teacher (A Reflection on Leaders and Teachers)

We’re all teachers in one way or another. At times we’re the lighthouse guiding ships through dark and stormy times. At times we’re the majestic mountain, easily seen from a distance and a landmark for navigating life’s tricky paths. And at times we’re the grounded ocean freighter, leaking oil into the sea and rusting slowly atop one of life’s hidden but treacherous reefs. Lighthouse…mountain…freighter. We teach intentionally and unintentionally. Either way, we teach.

As leaders, we’re looked at through a slightly skewed lens. When we put ourselves out there and choose to lead, we immediately become targets. One of my first bosses told me that, while it isn’t necessarily fair, everything you do as a leader is scrutinized by everyone in the organization. It’s part of the job. That point holds true in formal and informal situations. The distinction between both those situations, formal and informal, probably warrants some additional consideration.

You can divide leaders into two groups for the purposes of this discussion: those who are given the authority to lead and those who choose to lead because…well…a leader is desperately needed. Formal leaders are chosen. They are politicians, managers, executives, police chiefs, and school superintendents. All are given permission and authority by an organization to manage and to lead. All leaders do both, by the way: manage and lead. The ratio varies and is largely a function of personal philosophy. I often hear people distinguishing between leadership and management as if they are different functions and are themselves ways to categories leaders. In organizations, leaders are required to perform both functions. If you have to receive permission to lead, then you have to manage, too. Corporations, political parties, governments, fraternities…all require leaders to manage things like staff, budgets, strategies, and deliverables. Management remains the primary way in which leaders are graded within the traditional organization. It’s the default and will remain the default for the foreseeable future.

The informal leader chooses themselves. Once they choose to lead, their followers gather. This kind of leadership is more tribal. Informal leaders become the “official” leaders of their movements, but I will refer to them as “informal” because they do not wait to be granted authority or permission. They earn their authority. They earn credibility. They do and do and do, and they attract followers who believe in the work being done. Informal leaders can exist within formal organizations, but they tend to exist in the ether. They may not be products of Social Media and Web 2.0, per se, but they thrive today because of them. Read “Tribes” by Seth Godin. He’ll give you the 411.

Students in a classroom have little choice but to “learn”, be it by rote or genuine interest in the material. Regardless, the student is in the classroom, the classroom is the domain of the teacher, and the teacher has the power. It’s the same model as the conventional world of work. A manager and a teacher are very similar. Whether or not leadership is involved depends largely on the individual. The degree to which leadership plays into that leader-to-manager ratio is always optional in these kinds of institutionalized situation. So, let me shed some light on this kind of teaching: it’s not teaching at all, but instructing. The teacher who chooses to manage also instructs. The bio-chemical, cognitive, and emotional components required for true learning are largely absent in instruction. You do steps 1, 2, and 3 in order. No discussion. You do precisely as you are told.

A leader now…that’s a totally different situation. A leader is a teacher and a mentor and a role model. They have to do the hard work of connecting with the student and then lead them down the path to real learning. When momentum is created, they do the very surprising thing that all great leaders do: they get out of the way. Maria Montessori maintained that an adult who does for a child that which they can do for themselves is not helping but becoming an obstacle to growth.

How harsh! What adult hasn’t taken joy from helping a child? Did you get that? Adults take joy when helping a child. Take joy. Every time? Maybe not. But it gives you something to think about, doesn’t it? The same applies to leaders and managers. Leaders and managers who do for those they lead that which they can do for themselves are not helping but becoming an obstacle to…to what? To growth. To excellence. To innovation. To everything good that we say we want for the people we lead.

Here’s my advice for avoiding the situation: provide direction, then get out of the way.

Minimize management, maximize leadership. Minimize obstacles, maximize potential. Minimize instructing, maximize teaching. Get out of the way, and watch great things happen. Along the way, through your example, your articulated vision, your leadership voice, you will teach those who choose to follow you and choose to learn. Subtle, gentle leadership is the way.

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One thought on “A Purposeful Teacher (A Reflection on Leaders and Teachers)

  1. More awesome writing my friend. Thanks for this reflection. And I would encourage our readers to get the new book “Multipliers” which explores the very leader/teacher you so wonderfully describe here!

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