A GREAT TEACHER’S LESSONS for LEADING 06 MAR 2020 | by Martha Lagace
Thomas DeLong, a professor at Harvard Business School, explains in a new book what makes a great teacher—and manager.
“The best teachers are leaders, and the best leaders are also teachers,” says Harvard Business School Professor Thomas DeLong, who since 1997 has taught more than 20,000 MBAs and executives on campus and around the globe. Like leaders, he says, teachers “should be like a mad scientist who can’t wait to get to the classroom to share the experiment. If you adopt this mindset, students will remain intellectually and spiritually in the classroom with you.”
The Baker Foundation Professor of Management Practice in the school’s Organizational Behavior Unit, DeLong teaches courses focused on leadership, organizational behavior, managing human capital, and career management. His new book, Teaching by Heart: One Professor’s Journey to Inspire, was recently published by Harvard Business Review Press. He shares his journey between teaching and leadership and offers an inside view of educating MBAs at HBS.
Martha Lagace: Teachers are leaders, as you argue in your new book, and yet most managers don’t receive any training in teaching. How can managers approach their role in a new way?
Thomas DeLong: Their employees need them to do that. Just like MBA students, employees need to know we are invested in them and care deeply about them. I’ve seen it over the years. When I am teaching executives, among whom may be 60-year-olds, and I ask them, “Write down the name or names of individuals in your career who you knew cared more about you than you cared about yourself,” the older executives write down two, three, or even four names. They actually have a visceral reaction. When I ask 40-year-olds the same question, they might write down two names. When I ask 30-year-olds to write down the name of the person who cared more about them than they did, that they knew would be there as a security net to help them, guide them, and confront them, they look at me and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I believe those 30-year-olds want the same thing the 60-year-olds want. They want an effective manager who makes it clear through word and deed that they care about them.
Lagace: Your new book is an inside perspective on teaching at HBS. What can managers and leaders learn from your experience?
DeLong: Humans learn through stories. We ask our students to put on the hat of the protagonist in the story and then to try and make sense of the options, challenges, and opportunities that particular protagonist has. The underlying premise is that after thinking and trying to feel like a decision maker, there’s a higher probability of our students being able to think about complex issues and work through them. We also want our students to learn to be courageous—to have opinions and to expect and want to learn from colleagues and fellow students who might have very different ways of viewing a situation.
Just as I believe a manager is an orchestra leader, I see myself as the orchestra leader to guide, direct, and facilitate. In the classroom, it’s my responsibility to engage everyone and to try to read every student and find the key to unlock how that person learns. I want to figure out how I can support them in the learning process.
Lagace: What demands does it place on you?
DeLong: I need to manage in real time the way in which we’re learning the content. At the same time, I’m managing my own internal dialogue about whether we are moving in the right direction. Maybe there’s a student who looks disengaged. There’s a student who’s emotional. There’s a student who has her hand up for every question. And so I’m processing that. I find that to be exhilarating and taxing. I think if it’s done right, or if a teacher attempts to teach in this manner, they don’t have much left for the rest of the day emotionally and psychologically. And there are moments that my partner or my children will want more from me and I cannot meet their expectations.
“MY WORRY IS THAT THE HIGHER PEOPLE GO IN MANAGEMENT, THE HARDER IT IS TO GET THE TRUTH.”
But this is my belief: that if we spend 80 minutes involved in this particular situation, I want the students to leave that 80 minutes still thinking about that challenge. I want them to empathize and feel what that manager might be feeling. At a meta level I want the whole class—in some ways sharing the same breath—to actually feel different inside when they leave class. Part of that is from questions they’re asking about themselves and about the art and science of being a manager.
Lagace: What else do leaders and teachers share?
DeLong: Both need to put people in their life who are truth speakers. I don’t want to sound like I have the answers, by any means. I’m embarrassed that I waited until my oldest daughter was 15 before I asked her, “What’s one thing, Sara, that I could do to be a better dad?” When students come into my office they know I’m going to ask them, at the end of our conversation, “What’s one thing I can do to be a better teacher?” And I add, “Please don’t say everything’s just fine.” Then we just sit in silence. And then every student has feedback for me [at the end of the semester].
As a manager, what’s important is that I’ve created an environment where people can speak truth to power. And I can share it with the class: “Here are two or three things that I don’t know if I can change, but I want you to know that I know and I’m trying.”
I would also invite leaders to find someone with whom they can have conversations about their skills as a manager. My worry is that the higher people go in management, the harder it is to get the truth. As people rise we are less willing to be as honest with them as we could be. It’s a commentary on us and on the structure of organizations, and it is the human condition.
Lagace: Doesn’t it hurt sometimes to solicit and receive that kind of honest assessment?
DeLong: Yes. I was pleased and hurt by a letter I once received from a student after I kept talking about getting feedback. “Professor DeLong, you’ve always encouraged us to speak truth to power. So this is my effort to do so. When I attend your class I find myself anxious and fearful. I’m afraid you will use your humor to humiliate me or make fun of me in some way. I know you are well known as a great teacher, but I haven’t been able to connect with you. I know most students look forward to your course, but you need to know that you can hurt students without knowing it.” Even though a hundred students might write thank-you notes, this is the one I ruminate on. And by the way, I didn’t know who that student was. They did not sign their name.
So, I would love for managers to realize that when their subordinates and colleagues come to work they bring their history and current relationships. One of the assignments in my MBA class is to have a difficult conversation. A student once wrote, “Professor DeLong, if I’m being honest, I knew three years into my relationship that my partner and I have very different visions of the future. I knew he wouldn’t end the relationship and I needed to, but I just couldn’t have the conversation. I made excuses. The time was never right. I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid of losing friends. But ultimately it was my fear of disappointing and hurting him; and before long another three years had gone by.” And then she went on to write, “Had it not been for coming to HBS and your class, I don’t know when I ever would have gotten around to doing this. I did it, and it was painful. It would have been better to have done this years ago.”
So, recognizing the complexity of people’s real lives around us, a question that I want managers to ask themselves is: “What do I need to do specifically to honor the dreams of my subordinates?” Because what we’re really saying is, “How am I going to teach them?” Many executives do not think of themselves as teachers. But that is all leadership is. It’s teaching. How are you going to go about that? What is your style?
That is the essence of my book. That is the enlightening surprise as I have talked with people about this book: The fact that leaders don’t see themselves as educators, teachers, and role models. They see themselves as administrators and their identity is not based on teaching. All I am inviting them to do is to reflect and ask themselves how their day would unfold differently if they saw themselves as teachers. It means being with people and talking with people, not to or at them. There is an opportunity to figure out ways to work in more meaningful ways with people.