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Leaders as Teachers

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Visionary! Change Agent! Coach! Teacher?


Effective leaders hold many roles in the organizations they lead, but the role of teacher is an important and often overlooked responsibility.


In today’s ever-changing, complex, and virtual business world successful leaders hold many roles. They craft and communicate visions for their organizations and employees. They create change and guide others through it. They develop others to fulfill their greatest, and often unseen, potential. But there’s an additional and important role that the best leaders embrace – the role of teacher.


At Insight Experience, we stress the importance of Balanced Leadership. Great leaders succeed by balancing multiple dimensions of perspective and skill. Among the many skills they need to develop to be successful are business acumen, which can be described as one’s technical and functional expertise, and interpersonal skills, the ability to relate to and interact effectively with others.


Insight’s business simulation experiences are designed to improve and deepen both business acumen and interpersonal skills for participants. Very often we encounter individuals who have effectively mastered one or both of these areas. What’s the next challenge for these participants? To embrace the role of teacher.


Let me give you an example. A senior executive, I’ll call him Max, participated in one of our programs and brought great financial expertise and effective interpersonal skills to the task. In this simulation experience, we teach the importance of effective asset management and utilization. It’s well understood that all businesses need assets – cash, accounts receivable, inventory, equipment, and facilities – to run daily operations that, hopefully, generate revenue and profits. It’s less well understood that assets are expensive. Why? Acquiring assets ties up cash. Where does cash come from to purchase a business’s assets? Either from bankers (liabilities) or from shareholders (equity). Whether a company’s cash comes from bankers or shareholders there’s a real cost – known as Cost of Capital – to the business. As a business’ assets increase, the need for cash to fund them increases, and so does the business’s cost of capital. This is why many companies manage assets such as accounts receivable or inventory with great scrutiny.


Max quickly assessed the challenges facing the simulated business and persuaded his team that minimizing the assets in the business was an important objective. However, as decision making moved forward through several quarters, Max would scan the results, draw quick conclusions, and then “inform” the group of his point of view. Several of his peers, who were less financially-fluent, eventually called him on it:

“We don’t understand what you are seeing. We trust you, but we don’t understand you.”

Employees can often feel like those simulation team members. His team made Max take on the role of teacher. He recognized that he was skipping over a major part of his role as leader in real life.


What’s the leadership development opportunity in this example? First, understand the true cost of owning assets. Secondly, educate others! All too often, leaders communicate to employees only what they need to do, and not why they are being asked to do it. Using my example above, Max needed to learn to slow down and share his insight with others. He needed to teach employees and stakeholders why assets need to be managed with care because of the cost associated with owning them, not just tell them to do it.


Leaders need to gain mastery in many domains and disciplines, but their role doesn’t stop there. The role of teacher is an important responsibility and skill many leaders need to adopt as they strive to become more effective.

Ned Wasniewski is a partner at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.