An effective employee is teachable. A good mentee should be teachable. To institute a new protocol or establish a new management system demands that the entire organization be teachable. So what about the leader – is he/she not to be the teacher of the teachables? Not really. The leader might have a teaching role from time to time, but the effective leader must actually be the exemplar of the teachable spirit. The wise leader should be a life-long learner. The teachable leader must strive to absorb understanding like a sponge soaks up water.
So, what does it take to be teachable? As a leader, how do I know if I am teachable or not? Let me suggest seven test questions to help evaluate one’s desire to learn. If you hate tests and hesitate to read on, that is a pretty good indicator that you are not very teachable. With that little guilt trip out of the way, let take the test.
Question 1. Is it easy for you to identify and admit that you have limitations and inabilities and that you lack knowledge and wisdom in many areas of life?
I have worked with leaders that seem to know everything, that have underwear emblazoned with a capital “S,” and somehow manage to hide their capes when not flying to work. If you wonder if they are omniscient, just ask them and it will quickly become apparent that their encyclopedic grasp of knowledge is a source of pride and confidence. There is no need to admit a limitation if you have done. There is no need to consider the wisdom of others if you already know the best (only) direction for the organization.
On the other hand, I have served with other leaders who were quick to identify their strengths and their weaknesses. They were always looking for ways to get better and to compensate for limitations in their training, experience, or education. Recognizing and admitting areas of weakness is the beginning of teachability.
Question 2. Are you able to learn from those younger than yourself; new to the organization; or an entry level employee?
What could a teenager possible teach me? Answer: just about anything that deals with technology; translating anything into terms that the next generation will understand; novel perspectives and new boxes never thought of before. They have only been with the organization for two months – what insights of value could they have in such a short amount of time and without any experience? Answer: Windows into our blind spots; questions about our sacred cows and long-term traditions; the fresh air of the world outside our company. A teachable spirit is open to new insights, challenges to existing protocols, a better “best practice”, and a question of concern from any source – young or old; the new or the seasoned; the entry-level or the senior-level; male or female; black, white, or any shade in between; the high school grad or the Ph.D. The effective can and should strive to learn something from every person around them.
Question 3. Are you ready to try something different even if it is not your own idea? Are you prepared to look stupid, offer a wrong answer, make a mistake? A good leader is open to new ideas – a great leader is willing to hop on the mechanical bull and look stupid as he/she is being thrown off, if there is something to be learned in the experience. I am such a status quo kind of guy. I shy away from trying something outside of the tried and true. This is an area that I need to improve in order to increase my teachability. A leader does not need to take reckless chances just to prove his/her teachability, but the leader does need to be open enough to ask a dumb question or to probe an idea that he/she might not know much about, so that the organization can grow and so that he/she, as an individual, might learn about a new concept.
Question 4. Do you find yourself asking for help on a regular basis? Do you have go-to people that provide you with guidance and advice – do you pay attention to them?
Take a quick look around your leadership influence. Is it filled with “yes” people and heads that bob with enthusiastic agreement? It is good to have loyal, encouraging employees – those who cheer you on, and lift you up, and make you look good, but you also need people who can confront you, challenge your thinking, throw new ideas your way, hold you accountable, and provide alternative perspectives. If you are fortunate to have these kinds of accountability partners around you, be sure to listen to them, appreciate them and value them. The leader does not always have to agree with them, but the teachable spirit will be consistently affirming the critically important role they play in the overall mission of the organization.
Question 5. How do you respond when you fail? Do you blame others – quit and move on to something else – get up and or seek help (YouTube videos, DIY books, manuals, professional coaching and counsel)?
Most teachable leaders are book poor – their libraries are filled with the experiences and ideas of others. Today, you can find a video on just about any topic imaginable. You might not agree with the video/book but checking it out is a sign of the learner. Refusing to seek good instruction or rejecting the idea of reading Chapter One is a good sign that your teachability rating might be rather low.
Question 6. Are you a better listener or a better talker?
When other people begin to share (whether it is around the board table, the lunch table, or the pong-pong table), do you listen to the ideas being explained or do you just formulate your challenge to their thinking with the three reasons why their ideas won’t work. A teachable leader wants to be able to say “yes” to good ideas. He/she wants to expand, modify, build upon, or adopt straight up, a creative light bulb. In order to be ready to give a thumbs up, the leader must be a creative listener. He/she must energize his/her ears into Giger-counters that can discover powerful insights. Active listening results in a sensitivity and alertness to those sparks of genius sitting just outside the proverbial box.
Question 7. Can you change your mind?
Do you already know the best way? Are you usually the smartest guy/gal in the room? Is your major goal to persuade others and convince the team that your plan is THE plan? Leaders with blinders firmly attached their heads often find themselves behind in the race.
Another good way of exploring this area of teachability is to ask yourself, how often am I convinced during a meeting that my way was not the best way? Honestly, how often does pride rule in your decision making? Teachability actually demands humility. If a leader is too full of himself/herself, there is no room for anyone else. An excellent mindset is not to have your mind set.