MBA Master Class: Effective Learning and Teaching – Implications for leaders
Jul 13, 2020

On October 16, Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA Program welcomed Professor Swee-Huat Lee, a distinguished scholar who teaches jointly at Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA Program, Fudan University, and National ChengChi University in Taiwan, to share his perspective on this question. In addition to his own extensive teaching insight, Professor Lee also carries many years’ corporate experience in top executive roles, from which he synthesizes observations regarding effective learning and teaching as well as their implications for leadership.

Professor Swee-Huat Lee is sharing his perspective on implications for leaders

Professor Swee-Huat Lee in the master class

According to Professor Lee, one of the most critical components of authentic leadership is being a great teacher. Professor Lee challenged students to consider what he characterized as an inextricable link between leading and teaching. He opened by asking the MBA audience to reflect on the school’s mission: “Advancing Knowledge and Cultivating Leaders for China and the World”; specifically, Professor Lee highlighted the mission’s implied essential relationship between shared knowledge and leadership. 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 precept. Professor Lee pointed out the parallels between noted Chinese thinkers, who have posited that the path to greatness consists of manifesting virtue, loving and 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 Swee-Huat Lee in the master class

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. Perhaps intuitively, unconscious incompetence is an undesirable arena in which to function for leaders and followers alike. 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 intuitively 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 the 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” 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, therefore, should not primarily aspire to be a good manager, but instead, indeed, to become “only a good educator.”

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