Why Leaders Should Lead Like Teachers Teach

Explaining things is hard. But translating strategy into action is the number one responsibility of a leader.

You must convey ideas in a way that everyone on the team can not only grasp the concepts but apply them to their individual roles and responsibilities. They need to internalize the ideas. Those ideas need to shape their thinking. And their thinking has to inform their many decisions and actions.

This is a tall order, which is why so many leaders are bad at it.

Fortunately, leaders can learn critical insights from the teaching profession. After all, the entire purpose of that profession is transferring knowledge and ideas to others.

It’s not what you know

The first lesson you can take from teaching is that it doesn’t matter how much you know or how great your strategy is. What matters is how well you can convey what you know so that others can also know it–and act accordingly.

Shared understanding is the platform for everything else.

But how do you know that people are actually learning what you are trying to teach them? How do you ensure your leadership direction and guidance is absorbed, understood, and embraced?

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a classification of learning objectives proposed by Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist at the University of Chicago in 1956. The terminology has been recently updated to the following six levels of learning:

  1. Remembering: Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from long‐term memory.
    • If people can’t remember what the strategy is, then you have zero chance of it being followed. Communicating strategy in a clear, concise, and memorable format is essential.
  2. Understanding: Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages through interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining.
    • Remembering is a start, but the content of what you convey must also be recognized, appreciated, and accepted in a way that is meaningful to the recipient.
  3. Applying: Carrying out or using a procedure for executing, or implementing.
    • Once the message is understood, it can be translated into action relevant to the specific responsibilities of a team member.
  4. Analyzing: Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose through differentiating, organizing, and attributing.
    • When individual team members can probe an idea further on their own and consider new or different ways it might be applied, your strategy can start to be realized in more powerful ways.
  5. Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing.
    • Constructive criticism can provide essential feedback that can reshape and improve your strategy in unexpected ways. Individual ownership of the ideas is also fostered more strongly at this level.
  6. Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing.
    • Now you are really cooking! People are fully embracing ownership and creating new possibilities that you couldn’t have envisioned when this all began.

As you can see, the taxonomy is hierarchical. People move from the lower levels to the higher ones in order. It’s your job as a leader to move them through these levels, just like a great teacher does.

Backward design is key

The term backward design emerged in the 1980s though its roots trace back to the 1950s. It is a popular teaching method because it emphasizes goals-based learning. Contrary to earlier methods, it establishes goals before determining instructional methods. 

  1. Identify the results desired (big ideas and skills)
    • What the students should know, understand, and be able to do
    • Consider the goals and curriculum expectations
    • Focus on the “big ideas” (principles, theories, concepts, point of views, or themes)
  2. Determine acceptable levels of evidence that support that the desired results have occurred (culminating assessment tasks)
    • What teachers will accept as evidence that student understanding took place
    • Consider culminating assessment tasks and a range of assessment methods (observations, tests, projects, etc.)
  3. Design activities that will make desired results happen (learning events)
    • What knowledge and skills students will need to achieve the desired results
    • Consider teaching methods, sequence of lessons, and resource materials

(source: wikipedia)

This approach may be familiar to you because, just like your business strategy, the idea is to establish a clear goal and then implement a plan to get there.

The big difference in applying this to your team leadership is the assessment portion. Really thinking about the evidence you will seek to prove to yourself that others are understanding what you want them to do is crucial. That is what will help you to design learning events to help foster the kind of action you are hoping to cultivate.

How to tell your message is getting across

In order to gain confidence that your message is getting across, you will look for indications that gains in knowledge, understanding, skills, and attitudes are taking place. 

Seeing that people remember and understand what you said about strategy and execution is a good sign that the basics are in place. Evidence that that information is actually being applied to individual roles and is used in decision-making would show a deeper level of absorption and commitment.

Even better would be insightful questions, thoughtful critiques, or new analyses caused by the strategy or execution plan rubbing up against realities in unexpected ways. Best of all would be evolutions of the ideas into new ways of applying or adjusting things to achieve the higher level goals.

But you can’t just hope for that. You need to cultivate it. 

Teachers would use a variety of techniques to help students absorb and process material, elevate their thinking, and internalize the lessons. Some of those techniques are simply coaching the process of learning.

You might ask staff to explain things in their own words. That’s one of the best ways to help people process information and ensure that what you are trying to convey has been received and understood. Questions will arise as gaps in understanding surface, allowing you to provide answers and supply additional information. 

Similarly, you can set staff up into small groups or pairs where an idea or application of an idea is discussed and evaluated. You can later join the discussion for a follow up to coach just as you would in a one-on-one situation.

You want staff to ask questions of you and each other. You want to see them making connections and being able to recreate information in their specific context. You want them to be able to explain their thinking and reasoning in how the strategy is applied in their area. You want them talking and debating with each other.

You want them to reflect on all of this and come back with questions, challenges, and new insights. That’s what learning looks like.

And that’s what the results of true leadership look like too—strategy applied in earnest at the most detailed level.