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Tuck Professor Uncovers a Common Thread Between Exceptional Leaders

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What makes a great leader? Is it what Tywin Lannister tells his nephew Tommen before he takes the throne: intelligence? Or is it something else? Based on the latest decade-long study conducted by a professor at the  Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, great leadership requires great teaching.

Sydney Finkelstein, management professor and director of the Tuck Leadership Center, spent the last 10 years studying the best leaders in the world. During this time he found one common thread between every exceptional leader: They all emphasized one-on-one teaching.

“They routinely spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons,” Finkelstein wrote in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. “Their teaching was informal and organic, flowing out of the tasks at hand. And it had an unmistakable impact: Their teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.”

So, how can any leader become a great leader? Finkelstein said that it doesn’t take special talent or training, you just have to learn what to teach, when to teach, and how to teach. And he provided a few tips to get there.

What Great Leaders Teach

According to Finkelstein, the truly great leaders always taught relevant lessons that fell into one of three categories: professionalism, points of craft, or life lessons.

  • Professionalism: Within professionalism, leaders have a wide range of topics from which to choose, including how to communicate vision, how to prepare for lessons, the importance of putting clients first, ways to emphasize integrity, and more.
  • Points of Craft: The best leaders know the nuts and bolts of their business and root their approach to leadership in extensive knowledge and experience.
  • Life Lessons: “Great leaders don’t just teach about work—they also proffer deeper wisdom,” said Finkelstein.

When They Teach

Exceptional leaders know when the best time to teach is. They don’t just wait for formal sessions or reviews. Instead, they seize a variety of opportunities.

  • They Teach on the Job: Whether you work in an open space to ensure on-the-job learning through observation or you have an open-door policy, the key is spending time with your staff so you can teach them.
  • They Teach in Manufactured Moments: Waiting for the “perfect” timing is not the way to teach. Instead, leaders “create teaching moments—often by taking protégés out of the office environment to more relaxed settings or unusual places,” wrote Finkelstein.

How They Teach

Finally, great leaders know how to deliver a lesson, and they use nuanced techniques to get their point across.

  • Customized Instruction: Best-in-class leaders embrace personalization and tailor lessons to the student.
  • Questions: They ask sharp and relevant questions to further their own learning and the learning of those under them.
  • Modeling: They lead by example. “Sometimes, just seeing the right example in front of you is all it takes to pick up new behaviors,” said Finkelstein.

To read the full report about what makes a real leader, pick up the January – February 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Kelly Vo
Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and topics related to personal development. She has been working in the MBA space for the past four years in research, interview, and writing roles.