The best leaders are great teachers

by HBR

February 14, 2018 | 5:42 pm
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Kundapur Vaman Kamath was a teacher and CEO of India’s ICICI Bank. Kamath treated each day as an opportunity to provide his direct reports with a master class in management. Over time, this approach transformed the company. ICICI became one of India’s largest, most innovative banks, and Kamath has been credited with molding a whole generation of the country’s banking executives.

I’ve spent more than 10 years studying world-class leaders like Kamath to determine what sets them apart from typical leaders. One big surprise was the extent to which these star managers emphasize ongoing, one-on-one tutoring. Cognitive psychologists, teachers and educational consultants have long recognized the value of such personalized instruction: It fosters not just competence but mastery of skills, and independence. However, it’s unusual to see this type of teaching employed in a business context. Indeed, I’ve found that most leaders fall back on traditional employee management practices, such as giving formal reviews and helping to navigate internal politics.

In contrast, the exceptional leaders I studied were teachers through and through. They routinely spent time with employees, passing on technical skills, business principles and life lessons. Their teaching was informal, flowing from the tasks at hand. And it had an unmistakable impact; their teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take special talent or training to teach the same way star managers do. Simply follow the precedent they’ve set. Learn what to teach, when to teach and how to make your lessons stick.


Great leaders teach on a range of topics, but their best lessons fall into three buckets:

— PROFESSIONALISM: A manager who worked for the real estate CEO and investor Bill Sanders told me that Sanders often gave advice on conducting oneself professionally. Protégés of Kamath have said he showed them how to mentor subordinates in an appropriate and constructive manner. Other managers spoke of learning from their leaders the value of emphasizing integrity and high ethical standards. An executive who reported to Tommy Frist Jr. when he was the CEO of Hospital Corporation of America recounted that Frist sometimes lectured doctors about the need to put patients first.

— POINTS OF CRAFT: Stars like former hedge fund CEO Julian Robertson and fashion icon Ralph Lauren trained their people in the same highly disciplined approach that they employed themselves — one rooted in extensive experience. Mindy Grossman, CEO of Weight Watchers and a former executive at Polo Ralph Lauren, remembered standing in showrooms with Lauren and listening to him explain how to achieve authenticity and integrity in fashion whether they were “creating a $24 T-shirt or a $6,000 crocodile skirt.”

— LIFE LESSONS: Of course, great leaders don’t limit themselves to teaching about work — they also proffer deeper wisdom about life. That might seem like overstepping, but I discovered that managers found it extremely helpful. For  example, an HCA physician interviewed by my research team remembered his former boss Frist showing him a notecard on which he had written his goals. In a lesson the doctor never forgot, Frist explained that he refined those goals each day.


When leaders teach is almost as important as what they teach. The successful leaders I studied didn’t wait for formal reviews. They seized and created opportunities to impart wisdom.

— ON THE JOB: Some leaders ensure on-the-job learning by working in open offices that allow them to observe employees, project accessibility and encourage conversations. Others opt for more conventional offices but make a point of maintaining open-door policies and spending time circulating among their staff.

— IN MANUFACTURED MOMENTS: Great leaders create teaching moments — often by taking protégés out of the office environment to relaxed settings or unusual places.

Famed chef and foodie entrepreneur René Redzepi, co-owner of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, takes off-site teaching to an extreme. In 2012, he relocated his entire staff to London to create a pop-up establishment. A few years later, the team members went to Tokyo for two months. The goal, Redzepi explained, was “to learn by exploring a different place and meeting new people.”


No matter when or where they chose to teach their lessons, the leaders I studied were smart enough not to pontificate. They deployed these nuanced techniques:

— CUSTOMIZED INSTRUCTION: Best-in-class educators embrace tailoring lessons and support to match students’ individual learning profiles. And great business leaders do the same thing. They know that each subordinate should be taught in a way that suits his or her personality and developmental trajectory.

— QUESTIONS: Star leaders also teach by asking sharp, relevant questions, often in the course of furthering their own learning. According to a colleague at HCA, Frist “was always asking probing questions to find out what was happening.” He did it to “educate himself, not to make you feel like you were doing something appropriate or inappropriate. It was an educational venture.”

— MODELING: Another powerful teaching tactic deployed by executives I studied was the simplest: leading by example. One of Frist’s direct reports told me that he learned how “to be a lot more adventurous” just by being around Frist, who was “incredibly creative in how the company was built and put together.” Sometimes, just seeing the right example in front of you is all it takes to pick up new behaviors.

When you embrace the role of teacher, you build loyalty, turbocharge team development and drive business performance.

Teaching is not merely an extra for good managers; it’s a responsibility. If you’re not teaching, you’re not really leading.

(Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth professor of management and director of the leadership center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book is “Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent.”)

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by HBR

February 14, 2018 | 5:42 pm
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