Leadership Quality #20: Teachability – To keep Leading, keep Learning

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. – John Wooden (Basketball Coach)

Charlie Chaplin signed the entertainment industry’s first $1m contract. That was in 1918. Chaplin was successful because he had great talent and incredible drive. Those traits were fuelled by teachability. He continually strived to grow, learn and perfect his craft. Even when he was the most popular and highest paid performer in the world, he wasn’t content with the status quo. He would watch his pictures presented to an audience and would observe their reactions, if they didn’t laugh at a stunt he intended to be funny, he’d tear that trick to pieces and try to discover what was wrong in the idea or in the execution of it. On the other hand, if he heard a slight ripple at something he had not expected to be funny, he would ask why that particular thing raised a laugh. That desire to grow made Chaplin successful economically and it brought a high level of excellence to everything he did. In those early days, Chaplin’s work was hailed as marvellous entertainment. As time went by, he was recognised as a comic genius.

Leaders face the danger of contentment with the status quo. After all, if a leader already possesses influence and has achieved a level of respect, why should he/she keep growing? That answer is simple:

  • Your growth determines who you are.
  • Who you are determines who you attract.
  • Who you attract determines the success of your organisation.

If you want to grow your organisation, YOU have to remain teachable. In my coaching business, I have invested over 10% of turnover annually in ongoing development so that I’m in a position to bring those benefits to my clients.

Use these guidelines to help you cultivate and maintain a teachable attitude.

  1. Cure your destination disease – Ironically, lack of teachability is often rooted in achievement. Some people mistakenly believe that if they can accomplish a particular goal, they no longer have to grow. It can happen with almost anything: earning a degree, reaching a desired position, receiving a particular award, or achieving a financial goal. Effective leaders cannot afford to think that way. The day they stop growing is the day they forfeit their potential – and the potential of the organisation.
  2. Overcome your success – Another irony of teachability is that success often hinders it. Effective leaders know that what got them there doesn’t keep them there. If you’ve been successful in the past – beware. And consider this: if what you did yesterday looks big to you, you haven’t done much today.
  3. Swear off shortcuts“The longest distance between two points is a shortcut” (Nancy Dornan). That’s really true. For everything of value in life, you pay a price. As you desire to grow in a particular area, figure out what it will really take, including the price, and then determine to pay it.
  4. Trade in your pride – Teachability requires us to admit we don’t know everything, and that can make us look ‘bad’. In addition, if we keep learning, we must also keep making mistakes. “The greatest mistake one can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one” (Elbert Hubbard). You cannot be prideful and teachable at the same time. “For everything you gain, you lose something.” To gain growth, give up your pride.
  5. Never pay twice for the same mistake – Teddy Roosevelt asserted, “He who makes no mistakes, makes no progress.” That's true. However, the leader who keeps making the same mistakes also makes no progress. As a teachable leader, you will make mistakes. Forget them, but always remember what they taught you. If you don’t, you will pay for them more than once.


If you don’t want to be the leader with the same 1 year’s experience 20 times over, consider what this sign in a feed store says: “If you'd don’t like the crop you are reaping, check the seed you are sowing”. What kind of crop are you reaping? Do your life and leadership seem to be getting better day after day, month after month, year after year? Or are you constantly fighting just to hold your ground? If you aren’t where you hoped you would be by this time in your life, your problem may be lack of teachability. When was the last time you did something for the first time? When was the last time you made yourself vulnerable by diving into something for which you weren’t the expert? Observe your attitude toward growing and learning during the next several days or weeks to see where you stand.

To improve your teachability, do the following:

  • Observe how you react to mistakes – Do you admit your mistakes? Do you apologise when appropriate? Or are you defensive? Observe yourself. And ask a trusted friend’s opinion. If you react badly – or you make no mistakes at all – you need to work on your teachability.
  • Try something new – Go out of your way today to do something different that will stretch you mentally, emotionally, or physically. Challenges change us for the better. If you really want to start growing, make new challenges part of your daily activities.
  • Learn in your area of strength – Read six to twelve books a year on leadership or your field of specialisation. Continuing to learn in an area where you are already an expert prevents you from becoming jaded and unteachable.

Whether you are an untested rookie or a successful veteran,
if you want to be a champion tomorrow, be teachable today.

Part 20 of our Leadership Series: Leadership is an Inside Job, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader


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