This is the second essay in a series applying values from Biblical leaders to contemporary leadership.
Abraham is the father of modern monotheistic thought and practice, a truth-seeker who pursued his beliefs at great personal risk. He was also a great teacher, one who shared his novel ideas and firm convictions with the world around him in vivid, compelling, and convincing terms. More so than any person in antiquity, Abraham is responsible for the development and promulgation of ethical monotheism.
Legend relates that already as a young man Abraham recognized that the world, with all of its complexity and undeniable sense of purpose, must have been created by a single, invested G-d. It could never have been formed by the corporeal, inanimate deities that filled his father Terah’s idol shop. To prove his point, the young Abraham smashed his father’s entire inventory of statues save the largest. He then rested the hammer on its broad stone shoulders. When his startled, enraged father beheld the scene, Abraham calmly shared that the chief idol has destroyed all the others using a hammer, following a serious dispute.
“You are telling lies!” his father exclaimed. “I personally carved them into form. These images of wood and stone are completely incapable of the actions that you described.” Abraham retorted by asking the obvious: “How can you worship something that has no power, idols that only exist because you fashioned them?” The absurdity of the exchange – and of idolatry in general – cut right through his father. Years devoted to the promulgation of idolatry were negated by the wit and tenacity of his son.
The first patriarch was not content to maintain his personal beliefs in obscurity. Rather, “he called in the name of the Lord,” teaching anyone who would listen that his incorporeal, singular G-d is deeply invested in human conduct and wished for man to live an ethical life based on Divine dictates. People would gather around him and ask him questions. He would respond and bring them under G-d’s wing.
Abraham’s willingness to share his powerful story gives us insight to the following incident. Genesis 18 details how the now-elderly patriarch (he was nearly a centenarian at this point) sat by the entrance of his tent on a scorching hot day, anxiously hoping for some passersby that he could assist. When three travelers appeared, Abraham ran to greet them. He invited these strangers into his tent and offered them a princely meal. The visitors, who were really angels, then shared some important information with Abraham. They told him about the son that he and Sarah would finally beget. They also notified him thatG-d intended to destroy the cities Sodom, Gomorrah, and their neighboring locales, due to their intense wickedness.
G-d’s stated reasoning for telling his faithful servant gives us a deep insight into how much G-d appreciated Abraham’s willingness to spread his unique message.
“For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.”
G-d could have chosen any of Abraham’s numerous attributes to justify His decision to inform him of His plans. He could have identified his brave, pioneering spirit. He easily could have noted Abraham’s incredible kindness and care. Instead, G-d focused on Abraham’s willingness and capacity to teach others about G-d’s will and their future roles as Divine servants. This was an important quality, no doubt, but why did G-d select it over the others at this particular moment?
Abraham’s ability to instill in others a fidelity to righteousness stemmed from a deep sense of connection, a paternalistic drive to ensure the transference of his deepest values. He used those values to tell a story and engage others in some of the most serious and life-altering conversations possible. If there was anyone who would be able to make any inroads with the miscreants of Sodom and Gomorrah, it would be this kind, caring soul who taught others – through story and example – to walk along the moral pathway that he had established.
Getting Down to Business – Build a Teaching Culture
Much has been written about how 21st century leaders differ from their 20th century counterparts. Today’s leaders must guide complex organizations that are more virtual and multinational in nature than ever before. They must nimbly navigate through a fast-paced marketplace that is in continuous flux and determine the proper course forward from a myriad of options. They also need to recruit and retain a millennial workforce that has different interests, needs, and working habits than their elders.
In such a demanding business environment, leaders would be wise to develop a strong learning environment at the workplace. The celebrated CEO of GE, Jack Welch, famously said that, “an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Continuous learning and successful implementation of that learning is crucial to the success of today’s organizations.
But learning alone is not enough. Leaders who want to stay ahead must make sure that their companies also place a premium on teaching.
To be a learner is to engage in a one-way (receiving) process of understanding followed by action. The learning originates from an outside source: consultant, seminar presentation, book, etc. Even if the organization chooses to integrate the learning, it never really owns it.
In contrast, teaching organizations go one meaningful step further. They emphasize teaching over learning, placing the learning onus on internal personnel who are expected to learn and master ideas that they will then pass along to others in the workplace.
Research clearly shows that we remember more when we teach than when we listen. This is because the need to teach material forces us to master the content, to the point where we can deliver it clearly to others. As my 9th grade teacher used to say, “If you can’t say (or teach) it, then you don’t know it.”
It may sound all nice and good to add teaching responsibilities to the mix, but we know that most workplaces are not filled with experienced teachers and presenters. How can leaders expect to implement a teaching culture if they don’t have a stable of instructors on hand to advance learning?
As a former principal who has observed countless teachers, I can attest that the best teachers are the ones who can make learning clear, interesting, and relevant. This ability stems mainly from a deep quest for personal learning as well as the ability to ask tough questions and present answers in a way that others can to process and understand.
When preparing their talks or meetings, have your “teachers” think in terms of these “five p’s”:
- Paint a picture – Create a vision of what others will do as the result of this learning / process. Give them something vivid and exciting to wrap their heads around.
- Personal – Let others know what’s in it for them by learning this. How will it change and enhance their jobs? How will it help the company grow and become stronger?
- Positive praise – Encourage them with lots of praise and recognition of their achievements as well as their willingness to take risks.
- Perseverance – This can be the hardest part for both teacher and pupil. Challenges will invariably arise, particularly after the opening enthusiasm has waned. Be ready to work even harder mid-process so as to not lose steam.
- Perform – It’s not enough to share ideas and preach compliance. Good teachers know that they achieve so much through modeling. Show them what you want and then “walk the walk.” That will do so much for your credibility while also reinforcing desired behaviors and thought processes.
In summary, I present to you the words of Noel Tichy, author of The Leadership Engine and Cycle of Leadership: “We have looked at winning companies—those that consistently outperform competitors and reward shareholders—and found that they’ve moved beyond being learning organizations to become teaching organizations…. That’s because teaching organizations are more agile, come up with better strategies, and are able to implement them more effectively…. Teaching organizations do share with learning organizations the goal that everyone continually acquire new knowledge and skills. But to do that, they add the more critical goal that everyone pass their learning on to others…. In a teaching organization, leaders benefit just by preparing to teach others. Because the teachers are people with hands-on experience within the organization—rather than outside consultants—the people being taught learn relevant, immediately useful concepts and skills. Teaching organizations are better able to achieve success and maintain it because their constant focus is on developing people to become leaders.”
Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. For a free, no obligation consultation, please call 212.470.6139 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Buy his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss”, on Amazon. Download his free productivity blueprint at ImpactfulCoaching.com/ Productivity-Blueprint.
 Ibid 12:8
 Genesis Rabbah 50:2
 Genesis 18:19