Be A Better Leader: Be Relational (by being a teacher)

“Be Relational” is the second category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Trustworthy,” Be Knowledgeable,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Relational,” we will be talking about the need to be a talker, be a listener, be relational, be a teacher.

When we think about teaching, our minds generally go immediately to the role of a classroom teacher in a school. We tend to think of it as an occupation, rather than a way to communicate, as a job that someone does as opposed to how you interact with others in a way that helps them to learn something. However, while teachers play an invaluable role in the development of children, we are mistaken if we think that it is a job that is only relegated to someone in a classroom. The reality is that if you lead people you are a teacher.

I personally have experience in the professional role of educator, having served as a junior high and high school teacher for a number of years, and having spent more than two decades in a school environment as both teacher and administrator. I had subject matter that I was responsible to teach, and my job was to help students learn necessary and relevant information, and to develop critical thinking skills. But it also was a vehicle through which I sought to shape the minds and the lives of my students in the context of a relationship.

Leaders are also seeking to shape the minds and lives of those they lead, and so effective leadership can and should learn some things from the theory and practice of professional educators. Therefore there is great value in understanding what teaching looks like and how it has an effect on people. Gaining an understanding of this can help us with a framework for how we also can teach others. If we want to become better teachers (and we all should), then we need to look at the learning process and at teachers.

In the book Blended (2015), authors Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker discuss the concept of disruptive innovation and its application to the world of education, especially as it applies to online instruction and blended learning. They make the point that today’s schools were originally designed to standardize teaching and testing (the opposite of differentiation and customization), but in today’s global, information-based culture, the new need is for student-centered learning, which is personalized (tailored to an individual student’s particular need) and competency-based (they must demonstrate mastery before moving on). As they researched students in the learning environment, they then sought to identify the primary motivators for student learning, and found two motivating desires: 1) to feel successful and make progress, and 2) to have fun with friends, engaging in positive, rewarding social experiences with others. In short, they learned that students – the learners – want to successfully achieve, experience good social relationships, and receive individualized instruction whereby they can show what they know in the way they do best.

So research gives us some insight into what learners in general want to experience, but what about your own experience? Like most people, you can probably think of teachers who made an impact on your life, so we should be asking ourselves what they did that makes them stand out to us. When you do that, you will probably find several core practices or behaviors that characterized those impactful teachers: 1) they cared; and specifically, they cared about you, and you knew it, 2) they were examples that you felt you could emulate, because they were models of how to live life effectively and with meaning, 3) they challenged and inspired you, pushing you to do more than you thought you were capable of doing, and 4) they gave you feedback, both positive and negative, to support, encourage, and grow you, but also to hold you accountable and correct you.

Now put these ideas together, those from research and those from your own personal experience, and it will begin to give you a picture of what it means to be a teacher. If you apply this to the people you lead, it will help you to see that they want to progress and achieve, they want to have positive and caring relationships, they want to do what they do well in the way they can do it best, they want someone to show them the way and challenge them to grow, and they want to know how they are doing. And you don’t have to be in a classroom to do all of these things.

This provides for us a blueprint, a road map for how we can teach the people we lead, and there are four foundational pillars that make up this plan:

  • First, teach with your heart, developing a genuine care for people. Build relationship by taking a personal interest in their lives and showing that you care about them.
  • Second, teach with your words. Take the time to explain why and how, helping people to understand what it is that they are doing and how it connects to the other people and tasks around them in the organization.
  • Third, teach with your life, by living in way that is consistent with what you say, demonstrating integrity, and keeping your promises. Be an example they can emulate. Show them what you expect by demonstrating and modeling.
  • Finally, teach with your responses. Empower them to act, and then give them support and encouragement, but also give them constructive feedback to help them learn and improve.

In essence, to be an effective teacher, you must care, tell, show, and respond. These are all behaviors that can and should characterize you as an effective leader. Perhaps you have already been doing this and didn’t realize that in doing so, you have been a teacher. Perhaps you need to begin to do them. Regardless, remember that good teachers help students to achieve, even beyond what they believed was possible, and so it makes sense that if you can be a leader who teaches, the people you lead will grow and you will benefit.  And the most effective teachers know that the best teaching happens in the context of relationship.  So be relational, and be a teacher.

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