Education Opinion

Successful Leaders Are Teaching Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 11, 2013 4 min read
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Educational leaders continue to face challenges of unprecedented proportion. Facing these challenges cannot be done with integrity unless we do so with a keen sense of ourselves. Too often in our race to get everything done, we fail to listen to our inner voice. In failing to do so, we allow that rush to prevent us from leading our organizations forward. Knowing ourselves involves knowing how to listen to our inner teacher. When we do listen, we must invoke our courage, and take our risks. Leaders must be the teachers who set the tone for learning, engaging learners, leading a culture of continuous learning, and developing new leaders from within the organization. “The crucial first step toward creating a strategic and agile teaching organization is engaging learners so that knowledge is retained, applied, and cascaded throughout the organization"(p.4). This might describe the work we do yet it was actually written by Jeff DeSmet in an article for Harvard Business Publishing. The article, “Tapping The Inner Teacher: Delivering High-Impact Learning Through Leader-Led Development,” calls for business leaders to become teachers in their organizations.

In the article, he references Noel Tichey, author of The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders: “Winning companies--those that consistently outperform competitors ... [have] moved beyond learning organizations to become teaching organizations. That’s because teaching organizations are more agile, come up with better strategies, and are able to implement them more effectively” (p.1). Our business is leading teaching and learning organizations. We should be the experts to whom others look as they try to encourage their leaders to be teachers. Why isn’t it so?

This is a conversation that will take us on a circular journey. So, let’s just pull a few threads of the fabric to explore more deeply. One might expect to find discussions of the inner teacher in religious or spiritual literature. Harvard Business School’s attention to it instructs us that leaders’ knowing themselves is not simply for personal religious or spiritual growth. Leaders cannot only know their business, they must know themselves.

The article compels leaders to tell stories. How interesting. Often, educational leaders work in environments where storytelling is only for children. Ours is fast becoming a world of facts and data. Business leaders are discovering exactly what we are losing. The Inner Teacher article reminds us “A good story can drive home a message more effectively than just about any other means of communication"(p.4). The leader’s teachable point of view should be the basis for a dynamic, compelling story to share with others. Listening to the story of how a leader struggled early in their career offers teaching moments that are far more effective than receiving advice. We all learn from stories.

At the end of the day, words and ideas presented in a way that engages listeners’ emotions are what carry stories,” writes Peter Guber, author of the article, Four Truths of the Storyteller. “It is this oral tradition that lies at the center of our ability to motivate, sell, inspire, engage, and lead” (p.7).

Yes, indeed, we wholeheartedly agree. So, let’s share one remarkable story about how listening to his inner teacher, Hamdi Ulukaya, grew a successful company, returned employment to a community, and invested in others.

Hamdi Ulukaya was born in Turkey, raised on a dairy farm along the Euphrates River, and came to this country to study business in the mid-1990’s. Now in his early forties, he is president and CEO of Chobani, Inc, the largest producer of Greek yogurt in the country. He recently joined the Forbes’ list of billionaires. He was named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Of The Year for 2013. Finalists from 47 countries had been in competition for the prestigious honor.

He owned a company in upstate New York that produced Euphrates feta cheese, named after the river along which he was raised. A real estate flyer arrived by mail one day announcing the sale of a yogurt plant in central New York. He discarded it as junk mail.

Several hours later, yogurt and the plant were still on his mind. He retrieved the flyer from the wastebasket and the next day called to inquire and get details. A trip to visit the plant and the small town in which it was located somehow further hooked him. With no knowledge or experience with yogurt production, with advice against what he was considering, he purchased the plant in 2005. He hired workers laid off by the previous owners and spent time developing the recipe for perfection. Two years later the first shipments of yogurt were made. Now, sales are about a billion dollars annually. A second plant opened in Idaho last year.

The rest of the story is equally inspiring. His work is associated with a generous heart. Chobani, a word meaning “shepherd,” represents giving yet asking nothing in return. So, while the yogurt bears this name, the Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, was established to give 10% of the company’s profits to individuals working for positive, long lasting change.

The inner teacher, which he calls “gut”, would not let his mind or heart rest. Had he ignored it, played it safe, listened to advice from others rather than his own truth, there would be a different story. With pride and humility both, Ulukaya tells his story. He is teaching leader.

Additional Resource:
Tichy, Noel. (1997).The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level. HarperCollins Publishers:
 New York.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.