A Look at the Leader as Teacher

Learning to teach can teach us how to be better leaders

A note from Ari’s Top 5

Malcolm X once said: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” His point remains as relevant right now as it was half a century ago. And it’s just as true, I’ve come to believe, in the work world as it is in a school system. If we want to lead the way to the future—to create a workplace where the Revolution of Dignity is a daily norm—one of the best ways I know to do that is to create an organizational culture in which learning and teaching are a big part of every leader’s routine.

Zingerman's Four Levels of Learning: 1. Listening (or Reading) 2. Reflecting 3. Assimilating and Acting 4. [emphasized] Teaching (or Writing) Last week I wrote about the power of reading, how close it is to my own heart, how essential I believe it is to effective leadership, and how we’ve tried to encourage and integrate it into our systems and culture here at Zingerman’s. One element of the latter that I touched on briefly is our expectation of ourselves as Servant Leaders that we will each do on average two hours of formal learning per week (including, but certainly not limited, to reading). What I didn’t share is a long-standing corollary: that we will also do, on average, one hour of teaching per month. While I did not go into business in order to start teaching, it’s become clear to me that weaving a few hours of teaching work into my regular routine makes a big difference for the benefit of the business, of the people who are part of it, and ultimately for my own learning and development. Neither teaching, nor reading, on its own will instantly alter the mindset of everyone we work with. Still, as pacifist anarchist Ammon Hennacy once said, over time it will at least “start a few thinking here and there.”

Maggie from ZingTrain long ago taught us about what she calls Four Levels of Learning. The first level is “Listening.” (Reading, I realized a few years ago, is essentially “listening on paper.”) The second level is “Reflecting.” The third is “Assimilating and Acting.” The fourth level in Maggie’s model is Teaching. To get ourselves to greatness, we need to practice all four levels with a high degree of frequency.

As an awkward introvert, I loved the first level. The second and third levels of learning felt good too. Teaching, on the other hand, was anything but. Shy people like me are rarely eager to talk in front of groups. At some point, 30 years ago or so, I realized that whether I liked it or not, learning to teach effectively was essential to the effectiveness of my leadership. While the students benefit from me teaching, it turns out, so do I. Teaching helps me to understand the topic at hand at a deeper level, and to get my mind around how we can implement new ideas more effectively. As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein says, “When one teaches, two learn.”

When I was reflecting on the Four Levels of Learning and on what I wrote last week about reading, it dawned on me that the impact of what I learn from books is significantly enhanced because of the context in which I’m learning. Reading and learning are fun for me, but they’re also about purpose. Reading for me is a bit of an intellectual and emotional treasure hunt—I’m always in search of ways to make the work we do here better, to help me be a better leader, a better life-partner, a better human being. What I glean from books shows up later on in the form of new framings, new understandings, new ways to teach, new ways to learn, and better ways to lead. It’s a bit of what pioneering educator John Dewey said a century ago: “The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought.” My explorations make themselves known in the way I show up in the world every day and in what you read here, as well as in the books and pamphlets I write. Writing, it hit me while journaling one morning many years ago, was another way to practice the “fourth level of learning”—it’s essentially “teaching on paper.”

As the horrific invasion of Ukraine enters its second month with tragic loss of life and destruction, there are many stories of people who have fled their homes—millions of Ukrainians, but also the Russians who have escaped the Pyramid of Power in their homeland. In the years leading up to WWII in the 1930s, many people left Germany as some are leaving Russia now. Peter Koestenbaum was only eight years old when his parents moved the family from Germany to Venezuela—the only country that would take them in. Koestenbaum later came to the U.S. as a student, earning degrees in physics and philosophy from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University. He then taught business and leadership at San Jose State University for over 30 years. I first met Peter through his amazing books, and his teachings have had a huge impact on my work and my worldview. In the context of what I’m writing about here, this simple statement blew my mind when I first saw it 15 years ago: “Leaders lead by teaching,” Peter writes. “Leading,” he says, is the act of “teaching leadership.”

In small organizations—like ours at the time we opened in 1982—formal teaching is rarely a part of a leader’s regular routine. In bigger organizations, teaching work would generally be delegated to a Training Department or to Human Resources. All too often though, in organizations of all sizes, it simply never happens. The way we’ve come to view it here over the years is that teaching isn’t extra work for us as leaders—it is our work. It’s something we need to do ourselves, not a task to be outsourced or delegated. Peter Koestenbaum makes clear:

The true teachers must be those persons who are in charge of the organization. The bosses, ideally, should be the teachers.

I long ago came to the conclusion that one of the main purposes of my work was to teach everyone we hire how to run the business. Regardless of position, seniority, age, or tenure, I want to encourage every ZCoBber, from the day they begin, to learn to think like leaders. (For more on this see Secret #22.) In Peter Koestenbaum’s creative construct, the teaching and leading are, conveniently, one and the same. “To teach,” he says, “is to help others learn to think and act as leaders.”

All that said, if you would have told me four decades ago, back when we opened the Deli, that I’d be teaching even a tenth as much as I do now, I’d likely have looked at you more than a bit strangely. Cooking the line, to my new business owner’s mind, had little to do with classrooms. Like so much over the years, that belief has swung completely around. Today, I teach regularly—far more, in fact, than our one-hour-a-month minimum. Taking time to look back, I can see that the teaching we do here at Zingerman’s has quietly played a HUGE part in helping to make Zingerman’s into the imperfectly magical place that it is.

On a personal level, teaching has become one of the most rewarding things I do. Last week alone I taught the two-hour Welcome to the ZCoB orientation class, I co-taught the fifth session of the ZingTrain Master Class with Maggie Bayless (based on Part 2 of the leadership series), and I taught two days of ZingTrain’s Zingerman’s Experience seminar. While I’ve taught all of them before, I have learned something each time. I’ve been reminded multiple times by the people in the classes why we do what we do. It’s reconnected me with purpose, and grounded me in humility and continuous learning. I leave each time with significantly more energy than when I entered. By teaching well, we ourselves grow, and help others to gain understanding and skills at the same time. Don’t feel like you’re quite fully ready to teach? I’m with writer Ivan Turgenev: “If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”

Hardly anyone I know went into business—unless it was to start a training or education company—to be a teacher. And yet, it’s become ever clearer to me over the years that it’s essential to doing what we do. As Peter Koestenbaum writes, “A leader’s responsibility is thus to work and to teach.” Teaching makes my daily work more effective; my daily work makes me a much more effective teacher. By weaving teaching into our weekly work schedules, we become better leaders, our organizational ecosystems are enriched, and those we lead gradually gather the tools and techniques that help them become their own effective free-thinking leaders as well.

Over the 30 or so years that I’ve now been teaching regularly, I’ve learned a lot from Maggie (and from her exceptional e-learning book Bottom-Line Training) about how to organize training content effectively. By watching and listening to others, I’ve worked to find ways of engaging so that I don’t put my “students” to sleep. (Educator Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too, recommends spending a bit of time listening to the preacher in a Black church or going to a good barbershop to experience effective storytelling and active engagement!) Here are a few of the things I try hard to make happen:

  • Focus first on learning — I’m with Edward L. Davis, author of the amazing book Lessons for Tomorrow: Bringing America’s Schools Back from the Brink, when he declares, “It’s time to turn our attention to optimizing learning.” Our teaching work is most effective when it’s done purposefully; it’s about helping those who have come to learn to make their work and their lives better. Maggie reminds us to “stay focused on your trainees … and be willing to adjust and revise as needed.” If students are learning what they need to know, she says, “the class is successful.”

  • Be consistent with the rest of our philosophical construct — Whatever we teach must, by definition, be congruous with the other constructs to which we have committed ourselves. An effective class at Zingerman’s should come from humility; be based on positive beliefs; increase hope; model Servant Leadership; weave in diversity, dignity, equity, and effective inclusion; and be led with love. As Peter Koestenbaum reminds us, “In leadership, doing and teaching are the same.”

  • Connect dots to give context — Connections make the material we’re teaching come alive. Parker Palmer reminds us that what we’re teaching “will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives.” When I teach, I try to demonstrate the connection between the goals of the students and of the organization; between attendees’ life experiences and the content of the class. It’s essential to relate the lessons to what goes on every day in our workplace so that attendees can at the least get to that third level of learning, to assimilate and act on what’s being taught to make our work and their worlds a bit better.

  • Make it real — Teaching goes best when we are vulnerable, own our uncertainties, and share stories of shortfalls as well as successes. As Paulo Freire puts it, “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.”

  • Honor the uniqueness of every student — Every good teacher takes time to get to know their students, to honor the individual, to encourage questions and conversation, and in the process to help bring out the best in everyone involved. Through good teaching technique, we can make time to hear everyone’s voices, to help surface every student’s story, so we can (as per the first of the six elements of the Revolution of Dignity) honor the essential humanity of each person in the class.

  • Humility is essential — While we may know a lot about the subject at hand, there’s always a lot that we don’t know. Teaching as we do it here is not about benevolently brilliant bosses offering a bit of intellectual charity to those they employ. Rather, it’s about embracing the reality that we’re all in this together, that the teacher will learn as much or more from the students as the other way around.

  • Remember the Training Compact — This is a subject unto itself, one more of Maggie Bayless’ big contributions to our organization. Our Training Compact balances the educational equation so that both “teacher” and “student” are 100% responsible for the effectiveness of the learning. It asks students to tell me, the teacher, what to do differently to make the learning as effective as possible.

  • Bring positive supportive energy — As per everything we teach and expect of each other here at Zingerman’s, our energy when we’re teaching will quickly translate into our effectiveness as teachers. As psychology professor Haim Ginott said, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.”

  • Make the material your own — Parker Palmer writes, “Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching—and, in the process, from their students.” Conversely, great teachers take the raw material—even if they themselves didn’t create it—and make it into their own “art.” Done well, this is the kind of work the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska described as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”

  • Begin with positive beliefs — If we want our teaching to go well, we need to believe that those to whom we’re teaching are capable of getting to greatness. To help them to believe in themselves, understand that their work matters, and their minds are capable. This is part of the list for making the Revolution of Dignity a daily reality; it’s also on the list of new Natural Laws of Business. I love what educator Rita Pierson says in teaching her students to embrace positive beliefs about themselves, about their work, and about their futures:

    I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful, and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here. I have things to do and places to go.

  • Be ready to learn — There’s an old Jewish saying that the teacher learns five times more than the student. I go into every class believing that each student, their stories, their questions, and their context, will help me gain new insights and understandings. In the process, everyone involved—students and teacher—will benefit.

  • Encourage implementation — I learned from Maggie many years ago that to be effective, what we teach needs to be turned into meaningful, real world actions that enhances the lives and the work of all involved.

One thing I’ve come to realize over the years is that our teaching work can be continued, informally, even when we’re not “in the classroom.” I agree with educator Linda Cliatt-Wayman who says that “Every moment is a teachable moment!” I’ve tried to teach myself to turn what might normally be moments spent on small talk into meaningful opportunities to ask thought-provoking questions, share observations, etc. A healthy dose of caring curiosity can contribute a lot—simply asking things like, “What have you been learning?” or “How are you feeling about what we went over in the customer service class last week?” can give context and encourage effective implementation in a matter of minutes. Stories we share, even (or maybe especially) in casual settings, are also good teaching opportunities. As leaders, it’s incumbent that every story we tell is an opportunity to teach the kind of thoughtful leadership Peter Koestenbaum has called on us to do.

Over the years, I’ve come to see teaching as a tool for self-management. The line from George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is usually used as an unkind cut on educators. Instead, I take it as a cue for self-improvement. If there’s an important skill I’m not good at, I know that I will slowly but surely get better when I commit to teaching it. As the very wise Peter Drucker writes, “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” I’ve learned that regular teaching work helps me to get far more comfortable with communication. It helps me hold myself accountable, to walk my talk more effectively (I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying one thing but then doing another). Teaching helps keep me motivated—every time I teach, I’m inspired to learn more and do better. Regular teaching has also been a big help as we grow, in keeping a connection with people in our organization that I don’t work with regularly.

Ultimately though, I would suggest that our teaching is about helping those we work with—and ourselves in the process—to learn new paths and new tools. As Joseph Campbell writes, “The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.” Seeing a staff member come out of their shell in the course of a class is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. Teaching, done diligently and with dignity, in alignment with our values, our vision, and beliefs, can help us make a healthier ecosystem. Teaching in this way helps take staff members out of their day-to-day routines, engaging in ways that help inform more effective implementation. It gives us a chance to teach “the why” instead of just asking people to do the work. Ultimately, regular teaching helps us craft an ecosystem, as I imagine it, in which many people, regardless of job title, age, or anything else, will step forward to caringly lead the organization and themselves towards a better future.

Parker Palmer writes that “The hope of every wisdom tradition is to recall us to that wholeness in the midst of our torn world.” That the world is badly torn right now is clear to all. A few classes taught in a food business in a small town in the American Midwest will not alone mend the fabric of the world, but it can help to get a few folks—both the teachers and the students—going in the right direction. We can do it together, caringly, imperfectly, with love and positive beliefs, honoring the imperfect humanity of teachers and students alike. When it works well, it’s a magical experience. As Palmer says:

There are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind—then teaching is the finest work I know.