Leadership Lessons from Great Teachers

Master Teacher Wardie Sanders recently retired after teaching history for years at Hartsville High School. There are a lot of great teachers in schools all around the country who are only known to other teachers and in their own community. The news media are more likely to devote time to a violent crime or devastating fire than to the everyday work of great teachers. Wardie was an exception.

In November 2015, the New York Times featured an article headlined The Art of the Thanksgiving Table. Here’s what it was about.

“In this small Southern town, home to a Fortune 500 company, 30 Baptist churches and acres of cotton fields, Mrs. Sanders has for 16 years taught seniors in her history class at Hartsville High how to eat a proper Thanksgiving meal.”

The Thanksgiving meal wasn’t a special event. It was part of history class, complete with history lessons. It was something else, too. It was memorable.

I knew about her Thanksgiving dinner way before I met Wardie. I’ve heard other stories about things she did to help her students learn history. It struck me the other day that Wardie was like the great leaders I’ve known.

Great teachers and great leaders have a lot in common. They both accomplish a mission with people who may not be at all excited about it. They both care for their people. They both change lives. If you’re a leader, you can learn from great teachers. Here are some leadership rules derived from how great teachers work.

The Wardie Sanders Rule

Be memorable and inspiring. Find ways to impart important things to the people in your charge.

One of the great blessings of my life was that I was able to attend the Bronx High School of Science, one of the world's great schools. And I was there during what I'm convinced was the Golden Age of New York City public education. Here are two more leadership rules based on the example of great teachers.

Dr. Victor Baden taught science and he always had a twinkle in his eye. I can still recall his standards for recitation: "Precise, concise, and eloquent." They influence how I try to communicate a half century after I sat in Dr. Baden’s class.

The Dr. Baden Rule

You will do better at teaching and leadership if you set clear and memorable expectations.

Mr. Irwin Hoffman did not sparkle, but he did love literature. In his freshman English class, we read and discussed a book at week. The only exceptions were two weeks each for Moby Dick and David Copperfield.

We read The Diary of Anne Frank, Souls of Black Folks, The Red Badge of Courage and a score of other books. It was hard work, but I left that class with an idea of the broad range of literature and its lessons.

The Irwin Hoffman Rule

You will do better at teaching and leadership if you challenge people to achieve the great things that you know they're capable of.

Leadership lessons don't just come from leaders. Use what you learn from all kinds of people to do what you do better. Great teachers can teach you a lot.