Beyond Academics: Leadership Link Between Classroom and Careers

04/14/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

My six and half year old daughter got up in the middle of the night, wide awake and perplexed. "It is jet lag," I consoled her during our international travel. Not skipping a beat, she asked "What is jet lag, daddy?" I explained what it meant. That made me think- night or day, context or implications did not impede her to learn more. When we were kids, life centered around questions. The mind growth sprout is simply amazing - a dry sponge soaking all the surrounding water, leaving no trace of it.

As we grow older, a gradual transition happens without us realizing it. The soaked sponge builds memories, waddles through new puddles of water, with very little absorption, focused on the destination rather than the here and now. How self-aware are we as humans on this natural progression? Why would this be important? What has that got to do with careers? Those were questions in my mind when I look at myself in the mirror and trace the journey.

The Flip Experiment

During my school years in India, 11th grade was a "light" year, sandwiched between two national competitive board exam years. So, one of my teachers chose to do a very interesting classroom experiment in this grade. She said, "Today, I am going to ask each one of you to do something different. I would like you to craft questions independently for next week exam and I will design an exam based a subset of best questions." Predictably, there was palpable excitement. That soon gave way to a collective pause while crafting the questions. After that class, some of us had a impromptu discussion and our consensus was it may be easier to answer questions than frame them! Which question among the questions(what, why, when, which, where, who and how) to ask and for what content, is not trivial. The gradual change from the curious toddler to predominant answerer occurs by the time we are graduating from school! Does it extend beyond to careers?

Career and Class Room Dilemma

When we start our careers, there is a domain expertise we all become known for- an expertise gained by being hands-on and learning in the job. It is quite similar to learning by doing in a school lab. When we are asked to lead teams in our vertical, we naturally take the role of teacher/ coach, confident in our abilities based on our "been there, done that" experience. Depth of expertise propels the first phase.

There comes a point in careers, gaining breadth in new areas becomes key. Here is the dilemma - learning new areas ground-up and then leading teams with subject matter experts become time limiting now. On the other hand, entering the class room as the boss/teacher without the requisite experience is uncharted territory. How do the best of them handle this situation? Lot of literature talks about EQ and IQ abilities. While these have their own merit, my observation is something not talked about often - an extension of the classroom experience with a small difference that seem to distinguish leaders from others.

New bosses, truly great leaders, enter the classroom as students! The subject matter expert is the teacher. Great leaders give the experts the due respect reserved for awesome teachers and position themselves as students with one additional difference. They ask the questions and the teacher answers! If the students are tongue-tied and it is left to the teacher's initiative, it makes the teacher's life difficult! On the other hand, if the student questions everything - time and patience become premium commodities.

So, the best leaders have honed their skills to figure out - which among the seven questions to ask, when to ask and most importantly, how to ask. They implicitly understand that the way to a teacher's heart is insightful questions with the right earnestness, impeccable follow-through and thoughtful thank you.

Celebration of People's Mind: Enabling Careers

Why do the leaders with successful careers enter the classroom as students and never let go of the childhood curiosity of asking questions? Why do they have a higher propensity to ask questions than answer compared to most of us? Here is my 2 cents. Books from the library or an internet search can provide realms of information. People who have read them or have experienced it first hand can encapsulate the richness of the essence in few choice words. We, as humans, have the innate ability to remember and recall by summary. Great leaders salute the limitless ability of the people around them to synthesize the essence - human mind is the fastest way to insightful information. Questions are the key for unlocking this natural talent of the mind and great leaders are perpetual learners tapping the great reservoir of informational insights and synthesis. The most beautiful thing is that many great leaders do so instinctively and live a lifetime without explicitly realizing this inherent strength!

Circling back to my personal experience with my daughter - the curiosities of the young mind are a marvel to beholden and embrace. Somewhere along the line, many of us seem to transition from the enquiring kind to the answering kind. When my daughter shares her accomplishments, I congratulate her. And when she asks a curious question, I share the same enthusiasm. Life is a classroom, fostering an environment that celebrates the questions as much as the answers plants the seeds for perpetual learners - a key ingredient of great human beings. Human beings who buck the trend to make a difference.