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Learning organizations need teachers: the leader's challenge. (On Leadership).

Executive Summary

* Teaching is not a top-down phenomenon. Teaching occurs everywhere in the organization--vertically, horizontally, and diagonally.

* Leaders are valued for their ability to forge relationships with very diverse groups and individuals and build partnerships that are truly mutually beneficial for all.

* The best leaders have dirty shoulders because they are continually lifting others up.


PETER SENGE (1990) helped change the path of corporate America by helping us to think and believe in the learning organization that thought and acted as a system. Thanks to his work and that of his colleagues, systems thinking is now a strong part of most leadership and management organizations. However, learning organizations need teachers. In real learning organizations, one cannot distinguish between the learner and the teacher, because everyone throughout the organization is expected to teach each other and learn from each other. A major part of this concept is that the leader is a teacher, and is also a learner who learns from everyone in the organization.

Teaching is not a top-down phenomenon. Teaching occurs everywhere in the organization--vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. Hierarchies are eliminated, and the "authority gradient" that implies that one person has more intellectual ability over another one is eliminated. It is replaced by the belief that we are all peers in learning and teaching and we can teach and learn from each other no matter where we are positioned on the organizational chart. When this happens, synergy occurs, and we have strong intellectual organizations that can take excellent care of patient's because these organizations are the ultimate learning/ teaching machine.

Mama/Papa Management: The Leader as All-Knowing Teacher

Command/Control/Compliant-oriented organizations assume that all intelligence is at the top of the organization and the role of the leader is to tell people what to do. Mama/Papa management is infamous for infantizing the staff by using juvenile language to describe the staff, and creating distance with the use of cutesy language that implies that only the leader knows best. The result is that invaluable sources of information embedded throughout the organization are ignored.

In empowered organizations, everyone learns from everyone else. Teaching is as much bottom up as it is top down. The leader of the unit or the organization is seen as a person with an open mind who hears and really learns from everyone. Mama/Papa managers by contrast do not want staff to be empowered with information and skills because they fear this type of leadership. But we know that in organizations with Mama/Papa management growth does not occur, useful information is not available, and safe practice does not occur.

Leader as Teacher/Learner

Williams (2002) makes the point that if you can't teach, you can't lead. The leader who is the teacher can inspire and motivate people to crave knowledge and to grow into a better person. By contrast, he notes that salesmen persuade people to follow a certain course of action. But leaders teach people to become a better kind of person. He makes the point that you shouldn't ask how the company is doing. Instead, you should ask how the people you put in place, the learners, are doing. After all, a company is nothing more than a collection of people who make things happen. The leader's legacy is in the people who have grown in character and knowledge because of the leader's ability to teach new ways and to support personal growth.

But teaching isn't all that the leader must attend to. Williams (2002) also notes that great teachers are great perpetual learners. They view the mind as a muscle that needs regular exercise and regular opportunities to learn new and different information from a variety of sources. Effective leaders learn as much from the volunteer at the front door, the unit secretary, and the patient with a complaint as they learn from a Harvard professor in a workshop. For these leaders, everyone has something to teach them. And they continually demonstrate a thirst for knowledge.

Leader as a Learning/Teaching Partner

It is important to point out again that the leader, as teacher/ learner is not the autocratic teacher of days gone by. In corporations today, leaders are valued for their ability to forge relationships with very diverse groups and individuals and build partnerships that are truly mutually beneficial for all. The leader of a care center is effective if this kind of partnership is built with staff, other professionals, patients and their families, and everyone else in the organization who affects patient care. Rosenblum and Oates (2003) note that to be an effective partner, the leader as learner must understand deeply the views of partners and appreciate their perceptions. These authors use the term "appreciative relationships" to describe the valuing of the knowledge, contribution, and open sharing of information and the discovery of interconnections that become the basis for a partnership. This process is named the "virtuous cycle" and includes the process of appreciative relationships, fact-based insights, and a shared view of the opportunities as determining the potential of the partnerships. Appreciative relationships are two-way relationships. It must happen with each person in the organization, from the unit secretary to the nurse manager to the physician on the unit to the CEO. These kinds of relationships can happen only when everyone is open to appreciative relationships, and the partners learn and grow from each other in appreciative inquiry.

The successful teacher/learner/leader partner creates the culture of a learning/teaching organization. Environmentally, you see evidence of learning/teaching everywhere. Relevant articles appear on unit bulletin boards. Conversations revolve around the spirit of inquiry not advocacy of positions because people want to learn more from each other.

Tichy (2002) provides a very solid picture of what a teaching organization can be and how a leader can become an effective teacher/learner. Tichy notes that teaching organizations are winning organizations and cites models such as GE that effectively became a great teaching organization where everybody teaches and everyone learns. His view of leadership is that the leader has been given stewardship over assets in the form of people and that the job of the leader is to make the people more valuable now and in the future to themselves and the organization through the teaching/learning paradigm.

The "virtuous teaching cycle" and the "vicious cycle" are the two alternatives (Tichy, 2002) notes that leaders can choose. In the virtuous teaching cycle, each event triggers a process that creates something better and more beneficial than before. In the vicious cycle of leadership, people become dumber and their intellectual capital is depleted. Leaders have a choice of teaching, or selling, telling, and commanding. For long-term success, Tichy (2002) believes that teaching others to grow in a context of mutual learning is the only way to insure long-term success.

Serving Others From the Middle of The Organization

Top-down, autocratic leadership doesn't have a place in nursing and health care. We have a well-educated, motivated group of people who are entrusted to our care and feeding. We must make learning opportunities continually available so that all will grow. If we do that well, we will cultivate people who will become the next generation of effective leaders. Growth can't be mandated from the top. Williams (2002) writes that the best leaders lead from the middle of the organization and provides as an example Sam Walton of Wal-Mart who decentralized power and distributed information throughout the organization. Leaders who lead from the middle of the organization continually give out information and solicit information.

Williams (2002) also offers the model of the servant leader as the leader who embodies the teacher/learner model. He notes that the servant leader by definition cannot control people or circumstances and can only serve. He quotes Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines as saying that if you create an environment where people can truly participate, you don't need control. And that if you are a server by definition, you aren't controlling. Servant leaders provide the tools, the learning, and the teaching moments and serve others by teaching, mentoring, listening, and learning. These leaders build the infrastructure of teaching/learning within which people can grow. They see this as an investment in the future and not as an expense.

The best leaders have dirty shoulders because they are continually lifting others up. The leader who teaches does exactly that. The leader who crbates the vicious cycle instead of the virtuous cycle of learning deprives people of their birthright--the freedom to learn and grow.


The leader as learner and the leader as teacher are very basic to the role of any leader, but often overlooked in favor of command and control styles of leadership. Continual improvement is the only way we can insure to our patients that we can provide the best care available to them. In the words of Florence Nightingale: "For us who Nurse, our Nursing is a thing, which, unless in it we are making progress every year, every month, every week, take my word for it, we are going back (Ulrich, 1992, p. 12).

When we truly believe that everyone in the organization possesses useful knowledge they can share, and when we truly believe that the best organizations comprise true learners and teachers, we will achieve the excellence that we are determined to achieve.


Rosenblum, J., & Oates, C. (2003). The learning leader as partner. In L. Segil, M. Goldsmith, & J. Belasco (Eds.), Partnering: The new face of leadership. New York: AMACOM.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Tichy, N. (2002). The cycle of leadership. New York: Harper Business.

Ulrich, B. (1992). Leadership and management according to Florence Nightingale. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange

Williams, P. (2002). The paradox of power. New York: Warner Books.

KARLENE KERFOOT, PhD, RN, CNAA, FAAN, is Senior Vice President for Nursing and Patient Care Services and Chief Nurse Executive, Clarian Health, Indianapolis, IN, and Associate Dean, Nursing Practice Indiana School of Nursing.
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Author:Kerfoot, Karlene
Publication:Nursing Economics
Date:May 1, 2003
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