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The Leader's Role as Teacher, and the Threat to Put My Hand in the Shredder
October 2010

Phil Kopman was my supervisor 30 years ago, and he could be gruff. After all, he DID threaten to put my hand in the
shredder. But he also taught a great leadership lesson – that the role of a leader is to teach.

Early on, I went to him with a problem. "Phil, I'm having trouble with Murphy's Widget Company, and here's the issue..." He listened, and I asked what I should do.

Instead of telling me, he asked,"What does the handbook say?" I admitted I hadn't checked. Going back to his paperwork, Phil grumbled, "Don't come back till you've checked the handbook."

I checked the handbook, but still wasn't sure what to do. So I sheepishly went back to Phil. He looked up from his paperwork, with a scowl that said, "You again?"

Me: "I checked the handbook, but I'm still not sure."
Phil: "What did it say?"
Me:"Well it really didn't address this situation. But it seemed to suggest I should probably do A, B, C, or D."
Phil: "And?"

Me: "We can probably rule out C because of... And A won't work because... That leaves B and D."
Phil: "So? What will you do?"
Me: "Well D probably isn't a good idea because... So, I guess B is the answer."

"There you go," Phil said as he went back to his paperwork, and then growled, "Now get outta here and get some work done."

Phil taught me that the leader's role is to teach, in particular to teach others how to think. He could have given me, or anyone else, the answers. But he knew that giving us the answers wasn't nearly as effective as getting us to think through the problem.

And by asking questions, he taught us to think through to the right solution.

And that's your role as leader – to teach others to think, to ask the right questions, and by doing so, show others how to get to the right conclusion.

Now for the shredder. One day Phil stormed out of his office and blustered, in front of everyone, "Who's working the XYZ case?" I acknowledged that I was, and he bellowed, "And why are sensitive papers in the trash can instead of the shredder?"

I said, "The trash can? Uh, I meant to shred them, I...I must have forgot." Phil barked, "Do that again, and your HAND's going in the shedder." The office burst into laughter, and even I had to laugh.

When helping others with leadership, I try to be in teacher mode, asking the questions that get people to explore alternatives, look at consequences. It's what I learned from Phil. But I'll NEVER threaten to put someone's hand in the shredder.

That reminds me of another lesson Phil taught me: Never say never.

How often are you in teacher mode? How easily do you slip into answering questions, rather than asking the questions that teach people to think?

Until next edition, keep leading the way!

Copyright (C) 2010 by Terry Wall