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April 28, 2010

Hidden wisdom we can learn from teachers


The New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article recently that asked the question, “Can good teaching be learned?”  It got me thinking about the same question for leaders – can effective communication be learned? 

Is communicating – like teaching—purely instinctive, a kind of natural-born genius?  You either have it or you don’t?  Or is it a learned skill that’s easily accessible to everyone and relatively easy to master?

The article dissects what makes a good teacher and what does not.  Among the traits that do not predict success: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm, and having passed the certification exam on the first try. The same might apply to leaders, too.

As you read on, when you see “teacher,” think “leader.”

From the article: “All of the best teaching techniques depend on (the teacher’s) close reading of the students’ point of view.”

To persuade someone or move them to action, you need to know where they’re coming from, and communicate from their perspective instead of yours.  Communication happens in the mind of the listener.  To avoid the trap of communicating from your perspective, you need to understand your audience’s mindset.

“A teacher’s control should be an exercise in purpose, not in power.”

Employees today want to self actualize and feel as if they’re making a difference when they come to work.  They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, and feel like their work has a purpose and is meaningful.  Leadership is getting things done and moving a business forward through others. 

 “Dropping a lesson plan and fruitfully improvising requires a certain kind of knowledge.”

Leadership requires an ability to flex your style based on the audience, situation, circumstance. There’s not a recipe – work is complex today and communicating is complex.  Understanding The Great Eight Basics, as I call them, will allow you to flex in different situations and to adjust as you need to. 

The Great Eight Basics include:


  • Understand your audience
  • Make your messages clear and compelling, especially in times of change
  • Plan your communication
  • Set the context and make information relevant
  • Listen and check for understanding
  • Select the right vehicle
  • Communicate with truth and integrity
  • Match words and actions


·      Many of these skills can be developed or leveraged further, meaning once you master the skill at the initial level, you can raise the bar for yourself and continue to hone and refine this skill, applying it in more varied and complex situations.

“They need to take each mind from ‘not getting it’ to mastery.”

Creating understanding is about not just knowing what’s going on, but more importantly, why it’s going on, and what it means to me. Everyone learns a little differently. Listening and checking for understanding allow a leader to know whether someone understands or not. Some employees will “get it” faster than others; repetition helps ensure people go from understanding to action. Avoid the trap of the ‘check-off the box’ mentality – you do a little and think the job is done.

“Students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in ‘classroom management.’”

In the workplace, I call it communication literacy.  The reality is that everything you say or do communicates something, so you might as well get good at it.

“What looked like natural-born genius (of a teacher) was often deliberate technique in disguise (that was the result of a lot of practice).”

Take golfer John Daly. Many sports aficionados and commentators debate as to whether John Daly has more innate talent than Tiger Woods. His Achilles heel?  He is extremely talented but lacks discipline.  He has fallen prey to a mindset that says he was born with a natural ability and therefore, he doesn’t have to work at it. Whether you are born with a talent or not, you have to work to develop your effectiveness.  Everyone can learn to ride a bike or swim.  You just need someone to show you how, and to practice. As my high school music teacher said, “It’s not ‘practice makes perfect.’ It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.”

Seems like we can learn a lot from teachers, although not every idea will work inside organizations. At my partner’s elementary school, there’s a “Tattle Phone” in the kindergarten class.  It’s an old cell phone that now has an important second life. Any child who wants to tell on someone can tattle into the phone.  In most cases, that brief phone call solves the issue the child is having, and helps maintain harmony in the classroom.

Maybe we should consider a “Grapevine Phone” for our organizations?  It probably wouldn’t make the grade, but it sure is fun to think about.

Remember a teacher who was influential in your life?  What skills did they possess that would help you be even more effective?



- David Grossman


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