Should Strong Leaders Also Be Great Teachers?

Jack Welch once said: “As a leader, you have to have a teachable point of view.” How teaching separates great leaders from good ones.

Should Strong Leaders Also Be Great Teachers?
[Photo: Flickr user Bart Everson]

When the powers that be at a company decide that people need to learn something, they often go one of two ways. Sometimes they send people off to training, either in a classroom or perhaps at an off-site location, with an outside teacher or someone from HR. Other times, employees get video modules or downloadable lessons, with the hope that they’ll learn on their own.


There are problems with both approaches. A lot of people don’t do well learning at their own pace.

While days in deep thought in a classroom sounds ideal, people who study learning are coming to this conclusion: “You learn a lot over 2-3 days,” says Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning and international at Harvard Business Publishing. “Then you go back to work and forget a lot over the next 2-3 days, [and] the next 2-3 weeks.”

But what if your company took a different approach? What if managers did much of corporate training; building corporate education into their interactions with direct reports?

This idea of leaders-as-teachers has some upsides.


When Your Direct Boss Teaches Something, You Pay Attention

You’re more engaged, and hence have a better shot at remembering what happens. “If you have one of your senior leaders or your boss running the program, you’re not likely to be slacking off,” says Carvey, the way many people check email under the table in classrooms, or watch TV while they’re playing training videos on their laptops at night.

This engagement doesn’t just stem from people worrying about their immediate job prospects. It’s human nature to find information more interesting when people we are close to also find the topic intriguing. That’s why we click on links our friends share on Facebook.

Likewise in corporate education, “role modeling is really important,” Carvey says. “You understand and get the context from someone in the trenches,” when your boss teaches. “You’re not just hearing information from a faculty member you share no history with.”

Education Is A Two-Way Street

Having leaders act as teachers has another less obvious benefit. When managers teach something, “they internalize it,” Carvey says. This reinforces the knowledge and helps managers take ownership of it.

But, They’re Busy

Of course, challenges arise with asking your managers to act as teachers. If they’re already managing too many people to spend adequate time with each, then “you’ve just added another brick on the load,” says Carvey, as your managers need to master new information and skills before passing them along.

If you ever had an amazing teacher–or a not-so-amazing teacher–in school, you also know that teaching is a skill. Not everyone has this skill.


But you can bring in an experienced teacher to design a curriculum, or coach your managers on how to present material. This is also about reframing what management is. It is ultimately about achieving great things by bringing out the best in other people. Viewed that way, teaching isn’t just a distraction from a manager’s main job. It’s what the job is all about, and is probably worth the time.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at