When Leaders Become the Student
Humble, inquisitive leaders learn from their teams to gain insights that lead organizations forward.
The thirst to continually improve and master new skills is commonly associated with the most junior members of a team. But the best leaders flip the script and make themselves the lead student by seeking opportunities to gain expertise from team members.
Like the Zen teaching of “beginner’s mind,” leaders who position themselves as students of their own team members convey both openness and humility. Rather than lecturing on what they know, inquisitive leaders use their authority to explore what they have yet to learn.
Consider the leadership journey of Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo. When she became CEO in 2006, Nooyi embarked on a transformative path for the company, focusing on healthier products in response to changing consumer preferences. Known for her forward-thinking approach, Nooyi frequently engaged in conversations with employees at all levels, understanding that diverse viewpoints and ideas were crucial for innovation. Her willingness to learn from her team was key to her strategy of transforming PepsiCo into a more health-conscious and environmentally sustainable company.
Yet this stance connected Nooyi more deeply with her team while expanding her understanding of market trends and consumer needs. By reversing roles and becoming the understudy, she gained key insights that later helped her lead PepsiCo through a period of significant transformation.
The moral is clear: true leaders are infinite students. Like Nooyi, position yourself in the classroom of collective team knowledge whenever possible. Attune yourself to member strengths and carve out time for them to walk you through their expertise, whether it be new product development, market analysis, or sustainability practices. Suppress the urge to showcase what you know, instead leaning into curiosity about what you and the organization stand to gain.
This inversion of authority not only accelerates leadership development but also forges bonds of humility and respect. Team members express more candor and feel valued when leaders exhibit genuine interest in their capabilities. And placing yourself in learning mode alleviates unproductive hierarchical dynamics that can constrain organizational advancement.
So take a page from the lifelong learners and lean into intellectual humility. Let your people light the path forward through the knowledge they carry. Like Nooyi, reverse the student-teacher relationship whenever feasible. Progress occurs more readily when leaders are enlightened by those they lead. The upside is exponential for all.