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Posted on February 20, 2015

Every Leader Should Teach!

A Mindful Way to Challenge Yourself and Truly Learn

It’s one of the most important coaching tips I give leaders and aspiring leaders who wish to improve themselves and their job performance: start teaching. I don’t mean change careers, but set aside some time once or twice a year to teach about a subject you know a lot about, whether it be leading a team, overcoming difficulties, building a brand, making tough decisions or launching a successful innovation. Not so much to fulfill your social responsibility to develop others – although that does add to the equation – but mainly for your own success as a leader. Because it will get you some magical results.

I experienced the transformational effects of teaching first-hand. In my almost twenty-year long career as a boardroom strategist, and now associate at various business schools, I first delved into the world of executive education some eight years ago. A colleague asked me to step in and run a day session for him in a leadership program at a business school because he could not make the date. Flattered by the opportunity, I somewhat impulsively agreed on the spot. Weeks later, as the day neared, I caught up with him to ask for his materials. He told me he had none. He always improvised based on the needs and questions of the group. Now, he had twenty-five years of experience in leadership development to fall back on, and would be able to speak passionately and charismatically about the topic for days. I, on the other hand, would not. I did have some materials, but not a full-fledged eight hour educational experience, and I could definitely not ‘just improvise’ myself through the day.

So I was forced to figure out a way to prepare a full-day program for an eager audience of thirty or so seasoned leaders who had paid good money to learn something— from me. It was one of those nerve-racking opportunities life throws at you from time to time. In retrospect they not only make great anecdotes, but also prove to be transformational in your own development.

Three life-enriching things happen when you re-cast yourself as an educator and step up to the challenge to teach:

  1. First, you will need to sit down and reflect on what it actually is that you do, or what you think you know a lot about. You’re probably intimately familiar with the topic, but how can you structure it so your knowledge and experience becomes accessible for others? After all, your task is to make it comprehensible to an audience that wants to learn. Throughout this process of discovery you will undoubtedly bump into a large number of ingrained routines that might have served you well over the years, but turn out to be hard to explain. Sometimes this is simply because they are unexplainable. You’ll come face to face with your own assumptions, which might have been narrowing your perspective all along. And since nobody likes to get caught with his pants down, you will have to reexamine the reasons why you think, operate and behave the way you do. By teaching others, you are effectively triggering yourself to reflect and learn.
  2. Secondly, your audience will almost certainly ask you questions you don’t know the best answer to. You could – and, in theory, should – confess to this in all honesty, but especially in the early days you’ll probably feel compelled to answer them: you are the teacher, after all. And as you hold the advantage of authority, you can often wing it, talk your way out of it in order to save face. But on the drive home you’re struck by the thought that there must be a better way to answer such questions. You feel the urge to come even better prepared next time. In other words, you intrinsically fuel your own curiosity and prime your mind to look for the right answer, either explicitly by doing research or implicitly by planting the question in the back of your mind and allowing the answer to emerge over time. The next time you’ll have it: you’ll have formed a more complete understanding of something you claimed to be an expert on by deliberately exposing yourself to challenging questions, and admitting to yourself that your understanding wasn’t as exhaustive as you had assumed.
  3. Thirdly, you will gain platform experience, a factor not to be underestimated in your leadership journey. Even though reality is swiftly becoming more digitalized, front stage performance is still an important leadership marker. Your ability to pleasantly and confidently address an audience increases with practice, and by teaching you create a relatively safe practice field for yourself. Additionally, since I would encourage you to run a full day interactive session – not merely a one hour one-way presentation! – on your expertise, you will improve your skill in interactive settings. You will experience that this is quite different from giving a presentation, an ability most leaders have mastered over time.

Once you have run your day, make sure to get feedback. In writing, anonymously if needed. People tend to be brutally honest in written evaluations, so this will be a great learning opportunity for you, although possibly confronting. If your audience was confused, you probably do not have clarity of thought yourself yet. If they were bored, you probably need to find more intriguing hooks or improve your capability of hosting dynamic sessions. If they were unconvinced, you should work on broadening your understanding; you were probably unable to hide your limited perspective over the day, which undoubtedly holds you back in your day job as well.

Harvard Business School Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer speaks of mindfulness when she discusses the art of being open-minded. “Mindfulness is a remarkably simple process of noticing new things”, according to her definition. “Most important, it reveals that we don’t know that thing as well as we thought we did.” We become mindless when we work with the assumption that we know it all and operate on automatic pilot. With your teaching, you deliberately and mindfully develop yourself. This will help you re-categorize your own thinking, reframe your own assumptions, increase your curiosity and makes you conscious of other valid perspectives that exist on the topic you’re so passionate about.

So this is my coaching tip: find yourself a nearby business school and negotiate a full day in one of their programs. These schools typically run programs on a vast range of topics, from innovation to decision making, from basic management skills to advanced leadership reflection. And most of them love having practitioners teach in their programs, as real-life business experience is not something their professors typically excel at. In preparation, ask yourself what you would teach if there were twenty people in front of you today, eagerly awaiting eight hours of learning - from you. Knowing what you will do and how you will take them through the day is one of the best investments you could possibly make in your own development toward excellence.