Why Leaders Must Be Teachable to Succeed

I have worked a few different front-line customer service jobs spanning over a decade. If you ever want to have a bottomless pool of entertaining party stories, just work in front-line customer service for a few years.

One spring afternoon I was working alone in our front office and had to help an elderly gentleman who introduced himself as “the smartest person you will ever meet.” This customer told me that whenever he walks into a room, he is always the smartest person in that room. Apparently, all of his friends call him up whenever they have a problem they can’t solve, because he always has the answers.

Here’s a free tip:

The best way to get an arrogant person to like you is to let them brag about themselves.

Deep down, we all have an ego that loves to be stroked, so I let this guy go off about how much of a genius he is for over ten minutes before we finally got down to why he needed my help. It turns out that this self-professed genius had created a rather difficult legal problem for himself because, rather than follow specific instructions on a government form, he had knowingly chosen to put incorrect information on the form.

I explained the simple fix to this gentleman, and I advised him that though it might take a few weeks and a couple pages of paperwork, he would be able to rectify the situation without too much headache. The client’s response was that he was smarter than any bureaucrat, and he wasn’t going to do anything to fix the problem because it wasn’t his fault.

My client experienced a long period of difficulty due to his unwillingness to take advice from someone else; he wanted someone else to fix the problem, because he was positive that he was in the right. His behaviour is symptomatic of a deeper issue that has become prevalent today: an unwillingness to be taught.

People are often ready and willing to learn, but being taught is a different ball game. Learning is an action to be proud of because you are bettering yourself; being taught is a humbling experience because it means that someone else knows something that you don’t.

You must always be ready for someone to teach you something.

The willingness to be taught, or “teachability,” is an important trait for everyone, but it is vital for a leader. A leader should be searching for learning experiences in every situation.

1. You are not the smartest person in the room

No matter how much education you have, how well you scored on your exams, how much random knowledge you have, or how long you have trained in your field, there will be people who are smarter, have more education, more training, and better test scores than you.

It is important to have knowledge; after all, knowledge is power. It is equally important to not equate knowledge with prestige.

Just because you know something does not mean that you know everything.

Whether you are a high school drop out or a PhD, you have some knowledge that you can share with other people, but there is still so much that you can learn from other people.

One of my mentors and good friends, Mike Mannes, once said, “If you find that you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find new friends.” This is key.

Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

You should be seeking to learn new things, and you can only learn things from people who know things that you don’t. If you want to be a leader, your friends should be able to teach you stuff. Their knowledge might be about different topics than yours (maybe you’re a geologist and your friend is an English major), but they should be in a position that they can teach you.

Learning from friends or the people around you does not — and should not — have to be a formal affair. You can learn so much from people in general conversation, if you are open and willing to be taught. Whether they agree with you or not (more on this in point number three), you can still learn so much from someone just by listening to them speak.

Before you can learn from someone, you have to humble yourself and admit that there is something that they can teach you.

2. You can learn something from anyone

As much as you should be learning from your friends and the people you spend time with, you should also be learning every day from, well, anyone.

If you are willing to admit that you are not the smartest person in the room, the next step is to admit that, just possibly, the person who you consider to be less smart than you might still have something to teach you.

I have met too many people in academia who equate their degree or level of education with a position on the totem pole of intelligence. The higher your degree or level of education, the smarter you are, and if you have a higher degree of education than the next person, that makes you automatically smarter than that person.

The same is true, however, outside of academia. People with less education tend to discriminate against people within academia. They assume that academics are being brainwashed by the education system and that Regular Joe can learn far more by reading stuff on the internet than Doctor Don can learn at school.

The truth is that neither person is correct. Yes, you have to work hard and learn a lot of information to earn a degree in college or university, but that does not necessarily make you more intelligent than if you never went to school; it just gives you a wider breadth of knowledge. It is true that by going to school, academics are learning what other people want them to learn, but that does not mean that their education is any less valuable for it.

No matter how much education or self-led learning you have, you still have so much to learn. You cannot prejudice who you learn from based on your judgement of their intelligence.

Everyone can teach you something, even if it is simply how not to do something.

I was once volunteering with a group that was putting on a weekend leadership conference. A couple of hours before the door opened, the technical crew was doing a final check of the sound, lights, and visual aids. In their check they found a glitch in one of their programs that would not allow them to run one of their video files.

With the clock counting down, the tech team was working frantically to fix the glitch and get the program running. I know next to nothing about these sorts of errors, so I was observing but not getting involved. Standing next to me was a young woman who, like me, knew very little about technical errors, but she had seen this error before and she had an idea on how to fix it.

When this young woman suggested her solution to the tech team, she was told in a polite manner that it wouldn’t work and to leave the fix to the experts. For another twenty minutes these experts continued to work on the bug with no progress. Finally, after trying everything they could possibly think of, the tech team allowed this young woman to attempt her fix. Five minutes later, the program was debugged and the file ran perfectly.

Like I said, I am no technical expert, so I can’t tell you how this young woman fixed the error, but she did. Even though she had no technical training, she had seen the bug before and remembered how to fix it. The problem was that the so-called experts refused to believe that an untrained person could have the knowledge to fix such a problem.

We can all be like this team, blinded by our own knowledge, or at least our perception of our own knowledge.

Never assume that someone cannot teach you something useful.

3. Debate is about learning

With both an academic and a professional background in politics and political science, you can be sure that I have experienced my fair share of debates. I found that debates among university students — especially political science students — could get fierce. It’s easy to dig your heels into the ground and give up no ground when you’re engaged in a passionate argument.

I had a professor in university who loved debate and always prodded it along. If someone was on the fence, he would force that individual to take a side. The same was true of presentations: the professor would ask you to research a topic, present both sides of the debate, take a position in the debate yourself, and then open up the floor to the rest of the class for their ideas. More than once his classroom devolved into a chaotic maelstrom.

My professor’s tactics were not, however, designed to foster disunity; rather, he promoted debate and arguments because this forced the exchange of ideas. He would urge everyone to keep an open mind and actually listen to the opposing arguments. The purpose of his debates was not to convince the opposing side, but rather to learn or consider something they hadn’t before.

I am not entirely certain that my professor’s tactics were the best-guided, but the theory behind them was true:

You can learn far more from someone with whom you disagree than agree.

Imagine two people discussing a controversial topic. Both people have the same opinion on the topic. How much critical thinking do you think will occur? Not very much. Sure, one person might bring up a fact that the other person never knew, but with no one to counter their points, how are they going to learn? If two people discuss opposing views on the same topic, they will be exposed to arguments and facts that they may have never considered before.

I am not suggesting that you should enter a debate with the intention of changing your mind. In fact, I am suggesting that you should enter debates with the willingness to learn something from your opponent. There are very few debates in this world that have one side completely correct and one side completely wrong.

Be willing to learn from your opponent; their knowledge may surprise you.

Dynamic lessons

Teachability is one of the most important attributes of an upcoming leader. There are three things to remember in order to be teachable.

  1. Remember that you are not the smartest person in the room. There are always people who are smarter and better trained than you are; be willing to learn from them. You should also surround yourself on purpose with intelligent people so you can continually learn from them.
  2. No matter how intelligent you are, you can learn something from anyone, even someone you might consider to be less intelligent than you are. People can surprise you.
  3. You might like to argue, but debate is about learning. When you exchange differing ideas with someone, be willing to learn from them, even if you disagree.

Share in the comments section about a time that you learned something valuable from someone unexpected. Or if you disagree with me, tell me why!

Speaking of becoming teachable, if you want to learn more about how to be a strong leader, improve your creativity, succeed in life and business, or just become a better communicator, make sure you check out my page of Leadership Books That You Should Read. I have a lot of good material there that you should read.

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  1. Great points brought up! I agree, it’s so important to be willing and open to learning from people around you…

    As a mom, I’m constantly learning things from my young children, whether it’s a fact, or just something that is shaping my personality and character (yes, I’m talking patience, lots of patience ).

    It was similar when I was teaching elementary school too. there is much to be learned from talking with children and taking them seriously. They have an unique perspective on the world and it is fascinating to learn a bit about how their minds work.

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