A Leader is a Teacher

Scaling yourself as a leader by making the time to teach

Image credit: Flickr

Update: Had some good banter with Andy Dunn on this post which made me realise that it is worth pointing this post is mostly aimed at middle management or small startup teams. Indeed, the CEO of a larger organisation would be in trouble if they spent too much teaching their own C-level team.

If you’ve risen the ranks or run your own business, and you’re in a leadership level role, chances are that you must be pretty good at a few things: inspiring others, grasping complex issues and solving them, prioritisation, getting things done well, defusing tense situations whether external or internal… to name just a few.

However, there is one skill that rarely makes the list when rattling off the qualities of leaders: the ability to teach.

Why? Because teaching is a tough one.

It requires time — the most precious of commodities — and patience. Given that in most fast-paced environments we rarely have the former, having the latter doesn’t even matter. It’s not an “either/or” relationship, it’s an “and” relationship. So we go on firefighting and getting things done as we usually do hoping that those we lead will magically pick up on how we do things.

And some people will. But most won’t. It’s not because they’re not smart. Far from that. It’s because of human psychology: methodologies are taught, they are not innate.

To lead is to teach.

Figuring out what to teach

A leader needs to make the time to teach their various methodologies to those that they lead. What you should teach depends on the business and the type of environment you’re in, but I’ve usually found that if you teach the following, 90%+ of daily scenarios are covered:

  • how to approach a problem and go about solving it
  • how to ask the right questions to get to solutions
  • how to do proper research
  • how to checklist deliverables or strategic initiatives
  • how to react in tough situations
  • how to prioritise
  • how to manage others
  • and…. how one can teach himself/herself

The list above is not exhaustive but imagine that your lieutenants were able to do all of the above on their own, there would probably be very little left for you to do and you can focus on big picture, strategic issues that are equally (if not more) important to the success of your business.

Making the time

For the time poor (who isn’t?), a great way to do this is to incorporate these teachings every time a problem is served to you on a plate and you’re asked to solve it.

You can say “I’m not going to tell you what to do here but I will tell you how I would go about solving this issue.” And then ask the student to come back with their solution and see if they got it or not.

One thing that I have been doing at Garena is taking the time to teach about a particular topic at my weekly meetings with the various teams. The topics vary: what to look for when hiring, how to organise your teams, recognising when things are breaking and how to address it, the ingredients of word of mouth etc.

It takes no more than 15–20 minutes of my time but afterwards, the time required from me on the topic I discussed is reduced greatly, leaving me time to do other things. Through this (and other things which I will discuss in another post soon), I’m able to manage hundreds of people in several geographies, launch new ones and push big initiatives.

That’s the irony about teaching others: it takes time, you got no time, but make the time, and suddenly, you have loads of time.

Being able to do everything yourself is not cool. Teaching methodologies and empowering others to is.

It’s the ultimate way to scale yourself as a leader.

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