Who’s Teaching Whom?

A father sits at the side of his son’s bed while his son stares off into space.  The father tells his son, “There were so many things I wanted to teach you.  I always thought that was how it was supposed to be; that’s what being a father was.  Me teaching you.  Now it turns out, it’s you teaching me. And I want you to know that I’m okay with that.  I understand now.”

This closes the second episode of the television show “Touch,” a show about the complexity of the world; how seemingly unconnected events and people connect in ways we never understand.  The son is autistic and eleven years old.  The father is a widower, whose wife died in the twin towers on 911.  The son has never spoken a word, but writes numbers over and over and over.  In the first episode (which by the way is breathtaking) we learn that the numbers actually portend a linkage of events happening in the universe that the son’s unusual mind can understand.  He just can’t explain it but he sees what is going to happen.

By accident, his father sees the thread of events that his son initiated through a simple number, and suddenly understands that he is his son’s voice.    In the second episode, the father stumbles through his attempt to follow the son’s messages, and the conclusion is beyond words.

Besides the fact that I had cold chills as I was watching the conclusion unfold, I was struck by the statement about the expectation that the father is the teacher, and the child is the student.  True there are lessons that a parent must convey…important lessons that set the foundation for a life well-lived (or not).  But how extraordinary is it when the parent and child learn together….when they are both open to what the other is saying.

The analogy to the relationship between leader and employee doesn’t go unnoticed here; it is powerful.  How many leaders enter the relationship thinking that they are (or should be) the expert, bestowing knowledge and wisdom on their employees?  Could it possibly be that the employee may have something of value from which the leader can learn?

Noel Tichy, former Director of Crotonville for GE Leadership Development and author of “The Cycle of Leadership” makes a compelling case for 360 degree learning – which he calls “the virtuous teaching cycle.”   It is a “virtuous cycle”, opposite from a vicious cycle….the virtuous cycle spirals positively and upward rather than negatively and downward.  In the virtuous teaching cycle, hierarchy is reduced and learning is interactive.    Everyone is both a teacher and a learner.

How can we apply this to our leadership roles?  Remember the old adage “when the student is ready the teacher will appear?”  Perhaps the more ready and open we are to learning, the more the profound lessons will come our way.

I think it is worth a try.  How about you?

2 thoughts on “Who’s Teaching Whom?”

  1. It continues to mystify me that so many in leadership appear resistant to listening and learning from employees. Being continually open to discovery is a wise path that I see few take.

  2. Agree Kitty – Chris Argyris wrote an article for HBR some time ago titled “Teaching Smart People to Learn”. His premise was that successful people have not typically had the opportunity to learn from failure. I see so many organizations where leaders feel compelled to be omniscient, and miss so much.

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