WE ARE BORN with a desire to engage. We want to learn—to relate and interact. We want to connect.
But over the years, depending on our upbringing, our schooling, and our work, our desire to engage gets suppressed. It gets covered up.
Our job as leaders is to uncover and rekindle that child-like desire to engage with others and our environment. We can’t create engagement, but we can uncover it.
I was reading a remarkable little book written for teachers by retired professor Calvin Luther Martin entitled, Successful College Teaching Begins with Throwing Away Your Lecture Notes. We can learn a lot here because teaching, like leading, is about serving others while achieving a result. Indeed, teaching is a function of leading.
We teach much more than our subject matter; we teach trust or distrust, courtesy or discourtesy, warmth or coldness—the lessons between the lines.
The people we lead are not coming to us from our perspective. They have their own that has been years on the making.
Bear in mind that you are teaching young men and women with an educational past that has shaped them.
We bring our whole selves to work. Our hope, our scars, our dreams, our fears, our expectations, and our assumptions. Our childhood sense of wonder has been abused. It’s there, but it is cautious. We are conditioned to want to be right more than we want to be accurate.
Behold the class before you. They are not blank slates, nor are they ignorant. There is plenty written on those slates and your task is to rewrite much of that text—if they will trust you and if your good enough to get that close to them. They sit before you, thoroughly trained (brainwashed might be a better word) in ways of pedagogy that will determine how they hear you, what they hear and cannot hear, and how they will absorb what you say.
We are not leading another version of us. We are leading a human being similar in form but different in substance.
These people come to you with layers of expectations that have been created starting in the first grade. Like an old kitchen countertop, they have been painted over and over. The oak, cherry, or maple cabinet beneath is smothered by an amour of paint. It’s a bland countertop now. The fine wood underneath is unknown; it’s merely a rigid structure useful for covering with paint and, after that, supporting pots and pans.
Thirty countertops, each covered with a dozen coats of paint, file into your room, take a seat, and open their spiral-bound notebooks. They’re ready for yet another coat of paint, Professor Martin. They know the drill; go ahead, start brushing it on.
The sorrow of this parable is that they expect it. They actually expect you to drone on, giving them fact after fact while they fill their notebook and worry about memorizing all this information.
Surprise them; don’t do it.
A leader has to peel off the old paint and get to that desire to engage that has been unwittingly covered over. We have to uncover the desire to engage. The desire to learn. The desire to connect.
The tendency is to be instructing. We do need to instruct but it needs to be part of a larger, coherent story that people can feel a part of.
We are wired to engage. It’s already within us. Our task as leaders is to uncover what is already there.
Martin explains that to teach or to lead “is to give a concert, to perform a beautiful, passionate concerto which everyone in the audience yearns to play, improvise on, and even improve.”
We don’t build engagement, we uncover it.
Uncover engagement in your organization.
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