Posted by: Bill von Achen | March 12, 2010

What Great Business Leaders Can Learn From Great Teachers

As a life-long student of leadership, I’m always seeking ideas and insights from a wide range of sources that can help broaden my understanding of the talents and skills it takes to become a great business leader. What’s reaffirming about this search is the discovery that the same principles of effective leadership emerge from widely disparate sources, from the worlds of business and politics, to medicine and, now, education.

Teaching as Leadership is the just-released book written by Steven Farr and his colleagues at Teach for America, the non-profit organization that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, where the challenges facing teachers are as tough as they come.

The book summarizes the data on effective teaching that has been amassed by Teach for America for the past 20 years. Its publication comes at a critical time for public education in our country, as the Obama Administration gets ready to announce awards for its Race to the Top initiative, which will distribute $4.3 billion to states who can demonstrate success in improving educational effectiveness in their schools.

For Farr, teachers are effective not because they possess a dynamic personality, or because they are able to captivate their students with their dramatic performance. Instead, effective teachers consistently adhere to six framing principles when it comes to learning in their classroom, as follows:

They set big goals that are ambitious, measurable and meaningful for their students.

They invest in their students through a variety of strategies to work hard to reach those ambitious goals.

They plan purposefully by focusing on where students are headed, how success will be defined, and what path to students’ success is most efficient.

They execute effectively by monitoring progress and adjusting course to ensure that every action contributes to student learning.

They continuously increase effectiveness by reflecting critically on their progress, identifying root causes of problems, and implementing solutions.

They work relentlessly in light of their conviction that they have the power to work past obstacles for student learning.

So what does all of this talk of great teachers have to do with great business leaders? Just look down the list and focus on the words in bold. Great leaders: 1) set big goals; 2) invest in their employees; 3) plan purposefully; 4) execute effectively; 5) continuously increase effectiveness; and 6) work relentlessly.

(If the connection still isn’t clear, substitute the word ’employee’ for ‘student.’)

How do these principles resonate with your ideas of leadership? And what specific actions do you take to reflect those principles in the way you lead your organization? Share your thoughts and ideas by commenting on this blog post.

p.s. Journalist Amanda Ripley has written an engaging summary of the work of Farr and his Teach for America colleagues. Her article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?,” appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of The Atlantic, and is available at

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