Great teacher, great leader

  • Published
  • By MSgt. Landon Spaulding
  • 88th Comptroller Squadron

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Leadership. How do you define it? Is it a position? Is it a person? Is it a process? Maybe it’s power or influence? I would pose that the greatest leaders among us are not necessarily the senior executives, celebrated athletic coaches or respected political figures. While this can certainly be the case, I would resolve that the greatest leaders among us are the great teachers among us.

I am reminded of a story I recently read about a woman who attended her twenty-year high school reunion. While at the event she ran into her freshman art teacher and proceeded to tell him how inspirational his teaching was during her high school years. She then continued to share with him that she was inspired to go to college to study art as a result of his encouragement. She then excitedly shared that she was living her dream as an art professor at a large state university.

The high school art teacher was excited to hear her story and felt honored that she had taken time to remember him after all these years. After the conclusion of the reunion’s activities, the high school teacher again looked for his former student to shake her hand and thank her for her kind words; however, what he heard next changed his perspective on leadership entirely. Her response was, “You’re welcome,” as tears began to run down her cheek. “But let me thank you--you have made my life!”

Teachers are powerful leaders! Leaders who recognize their function as a teacher point followers to a cause far greater than themselves. Teachers do just that. Teaching is an enormously powerful means of leading. Whether good or bad, the words of a teacher can bring direction or destruction.

Throughout my own career, I have been blessed to spend a considerable amount of time as an instructor, and I can say that the insight I gained from these experiences changed my approach to leadership completely. Often the hardest thing to do as a leader is balance the responsibilities of the mission with genuinely taking care of your people. How can one possibly do both? It is my experience that a fervent dedication to teaching does both simultaneously.

Imagine there is a lifeguard sitting in his tower. However, instead of looking out over a pool of people swimming he is overlooking his yard that is lush with beautiful green grass. Each time he spots a weed sprout, he gets down out of his tower and sprays weed killer to terminate the rogue plant threatening his beautiful yard. And every time a weed appears he continues this same process. Over time as he climbs back into this lifeguard tower and looks out over his once green, unblemished yard, how will it likely start to appear? Spotty, with dead areas of grass randomly located throughout the yard from the incessant and reactive approach to spraying weed killer on “problem areas.”

Consider instead the outcome if the homeowner applied nutrient-rich soil and fertilizer to his yard on a frequent and proactive basis. Well, fertilizer contains natural weed-killing properties and supports the growth of healthy grass that would choke out the weeds from being able to take root. Likewise, a leader-teacher is one who takes an active role in generously teaching their team members on a consistent basis. In doing this, a leader-teacher takes ownership over the deliberate cultivation of their team and significantly decreases the likelihood and intensity of work-related issues—or weeds--if they arise.

Keep in mind, that a leader-teacher does not have to know everything. Instead, they must be willing to find others to teach them what they don’t know and open their minds to the expertise of peers.

Teaching is, in fact, the foundational task of every leader. Those who learn to prioritize teaching also learn to maximize their leadership through the act of serving others. You may not end up teaching thousands, hundreds or even more than a handful of people, but the truth still remains: If you choose to be a leader-teacher, regardless of the size or context of the audience, people’s lives will be changed forever.

Every day, in a hundred different arenas, great teachers influence through their passion, their character and their words. Teaching is indeed one of the worthiest and most fulfilling pursuits one could be committed to. From the stay-at-home parents teaching their children every day to the executive leaders within our ranks, I encourage you to take the charge to be a leader-teacher. Do it for your Airman, Guardians, Department of Defense civilians, family members and teammates. You won’t be disappointed. Who knows--It may just change your life and many others’.