The Best Teachers are the Best Learners

Jim Kouzes 2016.pngby Jim Kouzes
co-author, The Leadership Challenge

I needed a job. It was the summer of 1969, and I’d just returned to the United States after spending two years serving in Eskisehir, Turkey, with the Peace Corps. I was 24, still full of 60’s passion to make a difference, but out of work. I’d taught English as a second language, and I’d grown to love learners and learning. Before college I’d toyed with becoming a football player, a minister, an architect, and a Foreign Service officer. But a persistent voice inside kept calling me to teach, and by the time I’d completed my Peace Corps service as a teacher of English as a second language, I was certain I belonged in the classroom.

My initial search for a teaching job proved fruitless. While I’d been a secondary teacher for two years, no school system in the U.S. would accept that experience in lieu of an official credential. Consequently, I turned my attention to finding a community service job in one of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty programs.

With the help of my dad—a dedicated career civil servant—I got an interview with the Community Action Program Training Institute. They were in need of some young, eager, and inexpensive talent to provide management and interpersonal skills training to employees of the newly formed Community Action Agencies. I got a job with the southwestern region, riding the circuit throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico spreading the gospel and building the skills of effective human relations.

I didn’t know much about management back then—except for what my dad told us over the dinner table—but I had had the opportunity to experience some of the best interpersonal skills training in the world. While preparing for the Peace Corps I had been through some sensitivity groups led by faculty from the National Training Laboratories (NTL)—the pioneer of T-Groups. They played a major role in the Peace Corp’s cross-cultural training, and I’d had the benefit of being exposed to their methods as early as 1969. I was hungry to do some of that myself.

Whatever my new colleagues and I lacked in practical experience we made up for in energy, enthusiasm, and a strong desire to serve others. Our new employer was also wise enough to understand how important it was to invest in offering its new recruits some world-class training. They had hired the very best to put us through the paces. It wasn’t long before I was hooked and began the lifelong adventure that has been my career and my calling.

I was fortunate very early on to meet some of the most seasoned professionals in the business. One of them was Fred Margolis. Fred was a student of Malcolm Knowles, the father of the theory and method of adult learning known as andragogy. Fred was a master, and he taught me a lesson in the early 1970s that has shaped everything I’ve done as an educator since then.

I was doing some work in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area—the region in which I spent my youth—and after a day of training, Fred and I met for dinner at an Italian restaurant. During the meal Fred asked me the following question: "Jim, what’s the best way to learn something?"

Since I’d been extensively involved in experiential learning, I confidently told Fred the obvious: “The best way to learn something is to experience it yourself.”

“No,” Fred responded. “The best way to learn something is to teach it to somebody else!"

Boing! That was one of those moments when your brain does a double-take, and you realize you’ve just heard something extremely profound and a whole new world is about to unfold. What I learned from Fred that day—and I continue to learn every day I am with a group—is that the act of teaching is an act of learning. The deepest kind of learning.

You’ve probably felt the impact of this yourself whenever you’ve been asked to teach others—whether you’re a subject matter expert or a novice. The moment you’re asked to teach you start to think, study, worry, and prepare. In the process, you become consumed by learning. You know you’re on the line. You are going to have to perform live in front of others, and you better know your stuff. You’ve got to learn at a deeper level. Peter Drucker reveals that this is one of the five leadership lessons he learned from one of his mentors early in his career. “People learn the most,” Drucker observed, “when teaching others. My third employer was the youngest of three senior partners of a bank…. Once a week or so he would sit down with me and talk about the way he saw the world….. In the end, I think he learned more than I did from our little talks.”

That lesson—we learn best when we teach someone else—has shaped my style more significantly than any other lesson on learning. It inspires me daily to find new ways for people to teach each other. Even if I’m asked to give a lecture on one of my recent books, I always try to provide an opportunity for participants to become the teachers. When they put themselves out there as role models or subject matter experts—as someone who's a credible source of information—I know and they know they’ve got to reach inside a lot deeper than if I just ask them to take part in a simulation. I do that, too, but it’s the teaching they do afterward that’s the most important part of the experience. That’s when you know you’ve internalized it, made it a part of you. And when you’ve internalized it, you can externalize it; you can teach it to others.

The richness in this lesson has led me to also realize that master teachers and learners are master storytellers. Life is like a slide show. All we know about each other are the pictures we show and the stories we tell. All the rest remains hidden. The more effectively I enable participants to reach inside and reveal something they’ve learned from their own experiences, the more effectively I teach. The more capable I am at finding and telling my own story, the more authentically I learn. Learning and teaching, teaching and learning. What a joyous adventure it’s been, and continues to be!

It seems to me there are only two reasons great teachers know more than their students. One, they’ve dedicated themselves to learning. Two, they love what they’re learning. Come to think of it, maybe that’s just one reason.

Jim Kouzes is the co-author with Barry Z. Posner of the award-winning books, The Leadership Challenge (3rd edition, 2002, Jossey-Bass), Credibility (Jossey-Bass, 1993 & 2003) and, Encouraging the Heart (Jossey-Bass, 1999 & 2003). Jim and Barry also are the developers of the highly acclaimed series of 360-degree assessment instruments, The Leadership Practices Inventory.

Read more about Jim and Barry


Beth_High.gifby Beth High
High Road Consulting

The bountiful harvest of autumn is receding and nature now turns to preparing for the realities of winter. Plants die back allowing their roots to build and conserve strength to get through the winter. Animals prepare as well, storing food for hibernation or moving to climates that will enable them to survive to thrive again in spring.

The bountiful harvest of autumn is receding and nature now turns to preparing for the realities of winter. Plants die back allowing their roots to build and conserve strength to get through the winter. Animals prepare as well, storing food for hibernation or moving to climates that will enable them to survive to thrive again in spring.

As leaders you go through similar phases. The projects, campaigns, classes you lead are not always in a prolific state. The challenges of life are such that the energy of those you lead ebbs and flows. So what is it that keeps things moving forward during these dormant times, what is the root strength needed stay the course? Commitment.

But who's commitment are we talking about, the leader's commitment to their followers or the follower's to the leader? Is one more important than the other? The short answer is no, both are crucial. If leadership is about relationship, and the root strength of a lasting relationship is commitment, then the answer is both.

Let's look at the two perspectives. First, the perspective of those who choose to follow you as a leader. What is it that makes them follow you through the good times and the bad, the seasons of scarcity as well as plenty? Commitment. The surest way to get things done quickly and effectively is to have a team of people who are committed to a leader and the direction that leader has set. This enables them to be not just compliant, but committed. When people are internally committed, they have made a choice to dedicate their very best efforts based on information they have about the vision a leader has created.

The National Geographic Society sponsored a scientist name J. Michael Fay who lead a 2000 mile, 453 day trek across central Africa. The goal was to identify untouched lands that could then be designated as new park lands and therefore preserved. He and 12 crew were on foot, meticulously documenting every animal, every fruit tree, every dunghill they came across, every day, all day for 453 straight days through some of the most wild and dense forests on earth. When asked about their greatest challenge, it wasn't sickness or danger (although there was plenty of both) that Fay spoke of. It was the challenge of keeping up morale and commitment. He had to reinvigorate his vision and find the right words to keep his crew internally committed to moving ahead and staying the course when they were exhausted and worried about their families, their health, their purpose. He succeeded. He was able to give them the information they needed to maintain the internal commitment it took to complete this remarkable trek.

What engages that internal commitment? Think about the times you have felt that level of commitment. Can you determine where it came from? Here's one theory. We all make our decisions based on the information we have. That information enables us to make a free and informed choice about the given topic. Once we believe we have made a free and informed choice we are able to make an internal commitment. Have you ever been in a meeting when someone clearly explains the reasoning behind a decision that has been made. Once you understand the reasoning you can say to yourself, "I can support that decision. It might not have been the one I would have made, but I understand the thinking that led to it and therefore I can stand behind it." That is internal commitment.

Sometimes the information we have is just our sense of shared values. People who believe they understand the values of the person they are following are able to commit to decisions with less information because their trust in the leader supplies the additional information they need to make the free and informed choice that leads to internal commitment. Look again at the National Geographic story. The 12 crew who followed Fay were clearly limited in how much information he could provide. Nobody knew what lay ahead because no one had ever been there. But, their trust in him and his vision was enough to keep them moving ahead into the unknown.

So what can you as a leader do to engage that kind of commitment? The answers lie in the first practice "Model the Way." Be clear on your values and lead by them. Being transparent about what matters to you most is the quickest way to build trust with those who may chose to follow you. Being authentic about your values will enable you to be consistent in living them. Consistency builds relationship, relationship builds trust. The second thing leaders can do is listen and learn. Listen to those you lead and learn what information they need to be able to internally commit to the vision you hold.

How each leader demonstrates and engages commitment is where the passion, excitement and fun is. Each leader is unique and therefore how they chose to demonstrate their values, and listen and learn about those they lead in order to engage their commitment, is unique as well. How will you choose to share your values: in writing, in regular group presentations, 1-1 conversations, every chance you get? The possibilities are endless and the reward is the same: deepened commitment that will help you lead through the "winters" of life.

Leadership Lessons at the Kitchen Table

Pat_Schally.jpgby Pat Schally CPCC
Certified Business and Leadership Coach

There are countless stories about the impact that a father has on the life of an individual. In researching this piece, I found this to be so in many publications and books. And, rightly so. Fathers have a tremendous opportunity to encourage, support and give counsel to their children and have, in fact, positively influenced many of us to emerge as leaders. References are made about early lessons learned “at the kitchen table.”

Today, I’d like to take a look at the person who often sits next to Dad at the kitchen table and has an equal impact on their offspring. And that is---Mom! I am more acutely aware of the contributions that a mother brings to ones life as our family (six children, no less) recently suffered the loss of our own mother at age 85. This life event has caused me to reflect on the leadership lessons gained through her wisdom, compassion and ability to put life into perspective.

The role of motherhood is not one of perfection, however. The act of giving birth is no guarantee a mother will possess the nurturing qualities we all admire. Just as someone given the responsibility of “leader” does not automatically make him or her one. In fact, my own grand mother (whom I never knew) abandoned my mother and her sibs when my mother was only seven years old. I believe that made irreparable scars on my mother’s life. Yet, throughout history, we learn that disappointments and loss often contribute to an individual’s resolve to overcome an adversity. That was force behind my mother’s success as a leader at home and in the community.

By being an advocate of mothers assuming a leadership role, I’m not suggesting that leaders treat adults as children. Rather, that we consider the very earliest lessons in leadership and build upon that foundation. What specifically are some contributions that mothers (O.K, we can include Dads too) have made to build leaders of the future? And, how can we integrate them into our leadership style?

Leading by example. Good leaders tend to produce more good leaders. When a mother demonstrates her values every day while interacting with her children and is consistent in her dealings with others, she builds credibility. An example comes to mind of a parent who teaches his/her children not to cheat on their homework and then boasts about how they out-smarted “Uncle Sam” on their income taxes. The message is confusing. Question: Do you (as Jim Kouzes says in Credibility) “Walk the Talk?” Are your actions as a leader consistent with your words? Remember, your stakeholders are watching you closely!

Leaders as servants. Never is there more evidence of this than in the 24-hour a day role of motherhood. They (we, I’m a Mom too) seem to be pre-programmed to serve and nurture others. Spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama says, “If you seek enlightenment for yourself simply to enhance yourself and your position, you miss the purpose. If you seek enlightenment for yourself to enable you to serve others, you are with purpose.” Question: How are you serving your family, community and constituents? Are you “on purpose?” Do you even know your life’s purpose?

Leaders encourage. Probably the most comforting act of a mother is to encourage her children in the face of adversity. As a child, there is nothing more important than having ones mother believe in and encourage her child to achieve his/her dreams. Do we ever out-grow that need for acknowledgement and encouragement? Question: Do you feel genuine love for the people whom you lead and serve? To quote Jim Kouzes again: “Love them and lead them.” And, while you’re at it, make it a daily practice to encourage others to be even greater than they believe they are.

Whether leadership lessons take place in our formative years at the kitchen table or later at a conference table, leaders have an incredible opportunity to make a profound difference in other people’s lives. The bonus is that you may be fortunate enough to have a mother, as I did, who led with integrity and who still inspires me to ask, “What would Mom do?”