A Metaphor for Leadership

Teaching transformational leadership is a challenge because the conventional, self-interested, transactional mind cannot imagine it. One cannot aspire to what one cannot imagine — the transcendence of ego, and a team comprised of people who have transcended ego. I therefore search for patterns that might produce understanding and inspiration.

One of my favorite metaphors to help illustrate this is the notion of a transformational teacher. From experience nearly everyone has an image of a poor teacher and of an average teacher. Most people also have an image of at least one great teacher.

I was invited to engage in a study of the best teachers (top one percent) in the state of Ohio, and the study became a book  called The Best Teacher in You.  These were teachers who obtained results that are far beyond conventional expectations.  Some moved their classes as much as three years of progress in one year. In the interviews, it became clear that these teachers were normal, flawed people, like you and me.

Yet, like you and me, they were also extraordinary people. They lived from purpose, vision, and values. They were positive deviants who behaved in ways that accelerated the growth of their students.

Consider some observations.  The excellent teachers did not have jobs, they were not working for a paycheck.  They needed their paychecks, but they worked for intrinsic rather than extrinsic satisfaction.  That is, they marched to a different drummer — their purpose and their conscience. Instead of having jobs, these teachers had callings that came from within.  The excellent teachers were actualizing their callings by serving their students with full intent.

They were assigned to teach math, history, or some other topic. While they tended to love the topic, teaching the topic was not their purpose. Their purpose was to create the love of learning, to transform and empower their students forever. The subject matter, which they loved, was just a means to an end.

To achieve their means, they had to create classroom cultures characterized by shared purpose, discipline, trust, and vision. In seeking to create such deviant classrooms, the emphasis was not on ego, authority, expertise, control, planning, structure, presentation, memorization, rules, uniformity, justice, and/or compliance.  These conventional, hierarchal notions were in fact present, but they were not the emphasis. They oriented to self-transcendence, humility, flexibility, spontaneity, emergence, participation, engagement, trust, diversity, mercy, and co-creation.

A surprising fact is that most of these teachers felt lonely. They did not derive their theory of teaching from a book or a colleague. It came from purpose, and from marching to their internal drummer. The more they marched, the more they departed from the norm. Leaving the norm means becoming different, which can be lonely. Excellence is often punished by bosses and peers pursuing self-interested survival and organizational compliance.


  • Recall the best teacher you ever encountered. If the managers in your organization embraced that teacher as a metaphor for leadership, how would they change? How would you change?
  • Imagine the culture in a conventional classroom, now imagine the culture in a classroom of excellence, what is different? If you were to become a teacher, what would you have to do to create such a classroom?
  • What would happen if you gathered your people and asked each to describe their greatest teacher and the culture in that person’s class. What if you then discussed how to turn your workplace culture into a culture of excellence? (Warning: Do not do this exercise unless you are willing to transcend ego and become a transformational leader.)