The age of formal leadership is coming to an end.

No longer can leaders, at any level of a business, remain detached from employees while expecting them to work to their full potential. To do so breeds contentment, and nothing of excellence comes from contentment.

Today, leaders must be teachers. They must organically seek opportunities to engage with their charges, to advise them, to inform them, to encourage them to be better.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Sydney Finkelstein – Steven Roth Professor of Management and faculty director of the Center for Leadership at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College – reveals the lessons he learnt while studying world-class leaders, and how others can teach as they do.

What Finkelstein discovered can be broken down into three segments – what to teach, when to teach, and how to teach.


The lessons of great leaders can be broken down into three topics:

Professionalism. Finkelstein’s interviewees talked not only about the advice they’d received on professional conduct, but also on the value of integrity and high ethical standards in context with the values and goals of the business. These leaders recognised that it was not enough for the organisation to have a mission statement or goals; for employees to stick to them, they must constantly be reminded of them. Such lessons proved critical to bolstering staff loyalty, as well as ensuring the business remained focused, and true to its purpose.

Points of Craft. A good leader knows how to stay out of the daily affairs of their business. A great leader knows exactly when to jump back in to share some invaluable knowledge and experience. Take Finkelstein’s story about Ralph Lauren, who would eagerly impart advice on how to bring authenticity to fashion designs, whether they be a $20 shirt or $2000 denim jacket. Craftsmanship, handed down in such a way, ensures great ability runs throughout a whole company rather than remaining with those at the top.

Life Lessons. This is the one most leaders will probably hesitate with, but all it comes down to is sharing knowledge about things that have made your life easier, in the hopes it will make the employee’s life easier too. That might mean a discussion about the importance of journaling, or writing out five-year plans, or starting the day with a bit of yoga. Bonus: this inspires trust, and makes general communication a lot more effective.


Don’t wait until the next general meeting or annual review to share advice. The best lessons come when they’re most needed.

Finkelstein says office layout can make it easier for leaders to recognise where they’re most needed, but so long as they take the time to check in with everyone working under them, the effects will be the same.

In cases where more detailed discussions are required, great leaders create manufactured moments in which to impart their teachings – a staff dinner, for example. Co-owner of Noma restaurant, RenĂ© Redzepi, goes as far as taking his team around the world, launching pop-up establishments to put their abilities to the test in different locations, and with different people.

Not every leader will have the means or the need to go to such extremes, but there’s no denying a little bit of change can go a long way.


What leaders teach establishes authority, respect, and trust. When leaders teach ensures the message is given when it is of most use. It’s how leaders teach, however, that is most critical, for it determines whether the message is received at all. Finkelstein suggests three delivery techniques:

Personalise Instruction. Personalised instruction means tapping into what works on a person-by-person basis to maximise mastery of skill and independent action. That means no preaching or blanket statements to the whole team. Instead, use personal examples to demonstrate how aspects of an employee’s performance can be improved, and share these lessons in a private setting so they don’t feel like they’ve been targeted.

Ask Questions. Rather than throwing solutions in an employee’s face, help them come to conclusions of their own accord. An effective way of doing so is by asking questions. “How did that meeting go? Why did it go that way? Have you asked anyone else if they feel the same way? What do you plan on doing differently next time?” Don’t be accusatory. Don’t let your questions sound like judgements. A good employee knows the answers already, but it often takes a strong leader for them to admit it.

Lead by Example. Is there anything more important than leading by example? A great leader imparts lessons by what they do far more effectively than what they say. If a leader doesn’t (honestly) hold themselves to the same expectations as their employees, then their business can never truly excel.

Above all, Finkelstein’s findings impart one important lesson: the need to be a great teacher should not compound upon the responsibilities of a great leader. They are, in fact, intrinsically linked. A leader who does not teach is no leader at all.

You can read Sydney Finkelstein’s full article here.

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