Teachers lead, and leaders teach. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Both scenarios are manifestations of years of work, observation, and active engagement in your field. A teacher shapes minds by sharing her wisdom — and what is a leader, if not that?
When I recognized the fundamental relationship between teachers and leaders, it changed the way I support my team. I realized that each of us needs to connect daily with people from whom we can learn new skills and ideas. We thrive through growth, so I began emphasizing ongoing learning and cross-training programs. These are wonderful ways to bring together people with different skill sets so they can teach and lead one another. They also nurture awareness of how interconnected different teams are and how much the company depends on their working collaboratively.
There’s a personal reason that I’m passionate about teaching and leadership as well. Early in my career, I was assigned a role for which I was unqualified. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t really mature enough to handle it, either. Unsurprisingly, I soon made an epic blunder, and I thought my career was over.
But the chief financial officer at the company took me under her wing and spent the next three months coaching and mentoring me. She gave me direct, blunt feedback in constructive ways, and I slowly came to inhabit the role with newfound confidence.
That was a long time ago, but not a day goes by that I don’t use some skill or piece of advice she taught me. Years later, I learned that no one had extended the same support to her, so she made it her mission to coach someone with potential so that person wouldn’t have to go it alone, as she had.
I try to honor the gift she gave me when I work with young professionals now. Like my mentor, I provide clear feedback, constructive criticism, and praise when it’s warranted. My mentees know my criticisms are never personal and that I am their biggest cheerleader. As I see it, my job is to both be their leader and their teacher, and I hope to have as positive an impact on others as my mentor had on me.
Make the Most of Teachable Moments
I’ve realized that teachable moments occur every day. As leaders, we need to be on the lookout for employees who are struggling to fulfill their potential. By sharing our wisdom, we can help them grow and achieve more for themselves and the company.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can impart is that each person in the organization needs to have a team mentality. A few years back, I encountered a smart, ambitious young woman who was obsessed with becoming an industry rock star. Her fixation on rising through the ranks as quickly as possible put her at odds with her bosses and colleagues, and she felt she didn’t receive the recognition she deserved. She came to me frustrated with her lack of progress. I think she was surprised when I gently but honestly told her that she was causing these problems herself. She needed to see herself as part of a broader ecosystem before she could become the rock star she believed herself to be.
I empathized with her desire to be successful, but I knew she wouldn’t achieve her goals unless she focused less on her own achievements and more on contributing to the collective good. She began recognizing others for their help and championing her colleagues’ ideas during meetings — and before long, she was moving up the ranks.
Each of us contributes to shared goals, and the more we see ourselves as vital components in a broader mission, the more we contribute. Still, it’s the teacher’s (or leader’s) job to ensure that everyone has the support necessary to fulfill his or her role. Leaders set the tone for how decisions get made and problems get solved, and they teach through their integrity and their actions.
As leaders, we need to embrace our dual roles and take advantage of the opportunities to teach something meaningful every day.
Sona Jepsen is a writer and speaker helping people be so good, they can’t be ignored. She enjoys fixing, and growing businesses. Sona is passionate about people and performance with purpose.