6 Lessons from a First Class Leader

I’ve completed my first session as a college professor.

After an eleven-week accelerated schedule, I’m in the midst of a thirteen-day gap between quarters and have had time to ponder what my pupils taught me.

“The student becomes the teacher” carries new weight in my mind.

The irony of productive leadership is the mutual nature of the relationship between the “higher” and “lower” levels.

I guarantee the most game-changing companies are helmed by individuals open to learning from (and exchanging ideas with) their charges. Why?

Exposure to other viewpoints and strange questions spurs growth in many directions.

The naiveté of fresh eyes invites reconsideration of old knowledge. Channeled appropriately, the resulting energy bubbles new ideas to the surface and energizes all parties. Such an environment is invariably the breeding ground of creativity and its money-making ancestor: innovation.

Several things are crucial to developing and maintaining dynamic rapport–and, by proxy, progress.

Being at the front of the class has given me these glaring examples:

1. Expectations are important
The first night of class, I took a flier and decided to open the evening with activities designed to smoke out what they believed to be “best practices” for instructors. Giving them the opportunity to have a voice in the course’s direction allowed me to set high standards for their performance.

If you get behind your people–and they will know when you are–it gives them something to rise to.

2. Rules must be spoken
Difficulties arise when an unwritten code is unwittingly trampled on. I nearly doomed the educator-apprentice relationship with an unfair exam in mid-April.

I operated under the assumption their study habits included reviewing the illustrations in addition to their notes.

They thought my outlines were the only important material.

The test blew them out of the water.

I was almost burned at the stake.

So I decided to…

3. Admit mistakes
On the way home from nearly being torched, I called an old friend to discuss the evening’s events. I resolved to apologize for my errors in judgment and throw out the exam.

“Are you crazy?!” she asked. “What doctor do you know who did that when we were in school?”

“None of them,” I answered, “but maybe that was the problem.”

Regardless of what anyone says, acknowledging missteps fosters deeper commitment–as long as you ensure it only happens once.

I used the opportunity to redefine the rules and remove doubts, which I believe led to better results.

(See #1.)

4. People drink on their own
You can pull with all your might, yet the horse will always sip from the well at whatever pace–and amount–it chooses.

I butted heads repeatedly with a particular student, insisting her hard work and faithful preparation would be rewarded–to the point I got so frustrated one evening I directed her toward the door.

She resisted the message with all her strength, yet the smile on her face when handing in her final showed me it had trickled in some–and made the battles worthwhile.

5. Humor is necessary
The day-to-day grind of any task becomes monotonous at times. Injecting laughter into a situation–like a running joke of people “agreeing with me” as they nodded off to sleep–makes the slog that much more bearable.

6. Roll with the punches
Your ability to take the group’s temperature quickly and navigate a situation is crucial to successful outcomes. I often found myself talking to a room half-full of zombies after the brain drain of my trademark 50-question evaluations.

The lecture moved slower.

Repetition increased.

Class ended early.

The lesson was still effective.

Your ability to shift gears on the fly and make educated decisions or give quality answers instills confidence–inside and out.

Building trust in this way accelerates grand achievement.

With this in effect–finding ways to put those under your supervision first–your organization can only blossom.

Understanding what others anticipate, using levity to cool the air and fessing up to poor decisions displays humanity.

Accepting people as they are, creating fair guidelines for conduct and being adaptable exhibits even-handed control.

Combine them artfully and you’ll paint a masterpiece.

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50 Responses to “6 Lessons from a First Class Leader”


  1. 1 dressingmyself June 2, 2010 at 9:06 am

    I was a student a very long time ago, before the idea that students were customers was invented.
    When I try to remember which lecturers taught me anything that I can remember, it is the ones that I liked, and who were sometimes funny.
    I think the the lecturer/student role is better now, in that allowing students to criticize should result in better preparation and improvement.
    That said, I would not want to be any sort of teacher – well done for choosing a difficult path.

    • 2 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

      Thank you for sharing your story. I really like what you’ve said about students being “customers,” as I think it gets to the heart of the point in a big way. It works in a larger context for all our relationships, as people we interact with are “buying” us–whether we look at it that way or not.

  2. 3 Raul June 2, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Great blog! It’s great to be in the mind of the professor. It was always great when the professor was engaging and somewhat funny. I think that it’s good that you threw out that test. I had a few professors do that over the years, which gained much favor amongst the students and led to a better overall experience for both the students and the professor.

    http://www.wutevs.wordpress.com

    • 4 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 11:01 am

      Thanks, Raul! It is a delicate balance professors must strike–being funny and engaging, yet also maintaining the proper seriousness. In my experience, I believe many of my instructors were well-meaning people, just perhaps a bit unskilled at interacting with others.

  3. 5 ericahostetler June 2, 2010 at 9:22 am

    As both the teacher and the student, this is wonderful. It’s all those things we think we ought to know, when we read it we go oh, yeah, and clickety-click goes the brain…must use these new old ideas, retroactively as well as proactively!
    Thanks!

    • 6 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 11:04 am

      You are very welcome, Erica! It’s amazing how much being up there in front of students brings the “clickety-click” up to high speed. The good thing is, with some focused attention, these ideas become more ingrained into our methods.

  4. 7 whitenoise44 June 2, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Hi! I really like your post and find it interesting. One question though…. what do you teach? I enjoy what you have to say and hope what you have said goes to good use.

  5. 9 John June 2, 2010 at 9:56 am

    We trust comedians, mostly, because they make us laugh. Laughter relaxes the ego’s defenses and allows the mind to lighten up, but still take notice to every word. Reading the class like a crowd is/was/will always be one of the best ways to connect with students. I enjoyed the post and will utilize some of its lessons when I talk with my employees/students at next week’s meeting.

    Thanks again.

    • 10 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 11:07 am

      You are very welcome, John! I really like the parallel you’ve drawn here, as the ability to break down those defenses is very key in building towards great results. You’ve reminded me of a quote by Dwight Eisenhower:

      “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”

  6. 11 79sparrows June 2, 2010 at 9:59 am

    I love the lessons you captured and put into words so eloquently. I needed this!

    I’ve had a few really great teachers–and they displayed much of the leadership qualities mentioned in your awesome blog.

    I’ve also had really crappy bosses, who did not display such upstanding leadership standards.

    • 12 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

      I really appreciate your words, as “eloquent” is a compliment I hold in very high regard.

      We all have those superiors whose leadership leaves a bit to be desired and, as I’ve matured, I’ve found it best to use those opportunities to improve myself. It’s very important to learn from example, even if it’s something to avoid doing.

  7. 13 Lulu June 2, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Humor is indeed necessary. That what makes students love the subjects they might dislike before.
    great post!

    • 14 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 11:11 am

      Thanks, Lulu! Humor is also a great way to keep students awake, I’ve found. 🙂

    • 15 Ugmahay June 11, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Our classrooms are not supposed to be a cemetery of thoughts and ambitions. With us are living minds with hearts always wanting to see the brighter side of life. Humor does give a zest in our learning sessions especially when you’re handling physical sciences or mathematics. Thanks for the post.

  8. 17 David June 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I don’t know if I agree, because then you seem to be teaching to the test rather than giving advice for abstract learning. Anyone can recite facts back to you, but if you want them to really learn you have to keep the tests abstract

    • 18 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      Thanks for your comment, David! Would you mind explaining what you mean by “teaching to the test?”

      It certainly is helpful to provide them with examples of how different aspects of physiology manifest as disease processes they’ll be treating. However, much of healthcare education happens on the fly with experience, which the classroom–and the subject matter, I think–unfortunately falls short of setting up.

  9. 19 smokingjacketman June 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I feel motivated by that man’s bowtie.

    • 20 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm

      True story: I once had a friend email me while shopping at an airport Brooks Brothers because he saw a guy give a speech in a bow tie. He ended up buying two.

  10. 21 Critical 5 Marketing Solutions June 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for insightful information about leadership and learning from those around us. Your points are also applicable for business leaders and their relationships with their business associates.
    My career has been in the business world and all employees are both students and teachers. Managers at all levels need to be on the lookout for new learning opportunities and new “teachers” within their organizations.

    • 22 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 5:25 pm

      You’re absolutely right about new “teachers.” I forget who said it, but I know I’ve heard several times a leader’s job is to create more leaders, not more followers.

      Thank you for the compliment!

  11. 23 Pat June 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Such wondeful lessons to put into practice in everyday life. Thanks Dr. Ike.

  12. 25 Jim Hagen June 2, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I agree with your observations on leadership but I disagree that they apply in the classroom. You are opening the door to be completely manipulated by your students. The first thing that teachers need to learn is that they are the Alpha wolf and the students are a pack of males looking to topple you. Things like soliciting input and admitting mistakes can be disasters as any public speaker knows. It’s why history thinks that Jimmy Carter was weak and Ronald Reagan wasn’t.

    Remember at all times that students are there because of their emptiness, not because of their fullness. Otherwise they will literally kill your career.

    • 26 Jason Eichacker June 2, 2010 at 5:33 pm

      You make some interesting points, Jim. I agree that some students will look for ways to manipulate any situation, that will always be a part of the classroom experience. I’ve found, in my brief experience, it’s important to keep your own expectations in their minds, too. As an example, one of the suggestions I received repeatedly from one student was to allow the use of cheat sheets on exams. Every time, I replied with the same line “You’ll take your certification exams without one, and you will here, too.” Though this led to several different disagreements, I had final say and that was that.

      I think, in the end, you get what you’re looking for. If you believe a relationship must be adversarial, it will. If you choose to emphasize cooperation, that will win out. The key, particularly as many of these students are from difficult backgrounds, is to instill confidence in them to speak up while also sticking to your guns.

      • 27 Jim Hagen June 3, 2010 at 2:32 am

        I agree that the relationship shouldn’t be adversarial–it should just be arm’s length and some things shouldn’t be negotiable, as you point out with the cheat sheets.

        I’ve found that students who need a confidence boost need, first and foremost, a framework within which to operate. If you set goals they will thrive, but if you keep things vague and put the onus on them, they will be uncomfortable because their underlying lack of confidence makes them unsure how to operate in an unstructured environment.

        Best of luck!

      • 28 Jason Eichacker June 3, 2010 at 5:26 am

        Well said, Jim! Thanks!

  13. 29 Susan Merlo June 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Jason,
    I love watching you grow out loud.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing.

    Susan
    xoxo

  14. 31 Mellaly June 2, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Yea…thats really a informative post. I’m new blogger it would be sure helpful information for me i always keep in mind Thanks for sharing.????

  15. 33 kevinmattice June 2, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    And always remember….
    Lead by example!

    Thanks for the post.

  16. 35 Pro.Recruiter June 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Great article, everyone could use the advice here, no matter their professional area.

  17. 37 abinabraham June 2, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Cool! i enjoyed reading this!

  18. 39 Nikki June 3, 2010 at 2:34 am

    Awesome post! Even as a yoga teacher, I would definitely echo your words word for word. People are too serious. Laughter is definitely needed. Except everyone for who they are. People like to be challenged even if they say they don’t… they secretly do. And it’s absolutely true that people drink on their own. I could tell them the precise alignment cues to get into a pose until I turn blue in the face, but until they become present to the moment and allow the experience and info to sink in, it will just stay on the surface and they will only look great from the outside.

  19. 41 Lotus June 3, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Great advice! I’m finishing up my undergrad now, but I’m looking into grad school, hoping to be a professor as well. I’m bookmarking this to reread once I have my PhD!

  20. 43 Porzia June 5, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Yeah, it’s good, very useful, thanks 🙂


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