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Learning, Teaching, and Leadership: An Inextricable Link
Jul 13, 2020

Tim Hesler,GMBA Class of 2017 

Professor S.H. Lee delivering a lecture on effective leadership practices 

What is the most essential quality of a great leader? On October 16, Tsinghua SEM welcomed Professor S.H. Lee, a distinguished scholar who teaches jointly at Tsinghua University, Fudan University, and NCCU in Taiwan, to share his perspective on this question. Throughout the evening, Professor Lee synthesized observations from his experience as a scholar and corporate executive regarding effective leadership practices. 

According to Professor Lee, one of the most critical components of authentic leadership is, in fact, being a great teacher. He challenged students to consider what he characterized as a necessary relationship between leading and teaching by reflecting on the school’s mission: “Advancing Knowledge and Cultivating Leaders for China and the World.” If one is to effectively lead, Professor Lee argued, one must be able to teach something well, and to teach something well, an adeptness at learning is a key prerequisite. 

Eastern and Western perspectives alike echo this principle. Professor Lee pointed out the parallels between noted Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, who have posited that the path to greatness consists largely of manifesting virtue, educating one’s people, and striving towards constant improvements, and modern Western business leaders such as Jack Welch, who has famously suggested that, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” 

Professor Lee delineated four different domains in the process of attaining and effectively relaying knowledge, tied in 2 x 2 form to the variables of consciousness and competence. First, he described a zone of “unconscious incompetence,” in which an individual may exhibit a lack of competence but be entirely unaware. In contrast, conscious competence (being competent and aware of it) and unconscious competence (reaching a point at which a particular dimension of competence has become so thoroughly embedded in one’s decisions and behavior that the knowledge itself may not always be distinguishable to the individual) are both naturally preferable to unconscious incompetence. 

Professor Lee spent much of the evening’s dialogue, however, teasing out the value of a fourth domain: conscious incompetence. He argued that movement from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – developing an awareness of one’s own deficiencies – is also one of the most essential elements of successful leadership. For example, he shared, leaders can’t know everything, but if a leader recognizes what he or she doesn’t know and as a consequence hires the right people, that leader is more likely to respect those subordinates, value their advice, and give them the appropriate power. If, on the other hand, one is in a state of unconscious incompetence, he or she may be unlikely to make the right hires, and even if through some stroke of coincidence the right hire is made, the manager is unlikely to appropriately value or empower talented subordinates. 

An anecdote that Professor Lee shared summarized well the thrust of the evening’s key takeaways. He relayed the insight of one “manager”, an owner of a successful enterprise, whose employees were observed to perform at exceptionally high levels and in particularly impressive capacities. Upon being credited as a wonderful manager, the leader shrugged off such applause: “I’m not a good manager. I didn’t manage them; I only educated them. I’m only a good educator.” In parallel, Professor Lee suggested, the student who aspires to leadership should not primarily aspire to be a good manager, but instead, indeed, to become “only” a good educator. 


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