Smart Leaders Don't Just Learn, They Teach

Last Updated Jan 4, 2011 11:13 AM EST

Ever since the publication, nearly two decades ago, of Peter Senge's monumental bestseller The Fifth Discipline, we've been in the age of the "learning organization." Executives understand that for their companies to stay ahead of the competition, their people, at every level, have to learn more (and more quickly) than the competition: new skills, new takes on emerging technologies, new ways to do old things, from manufacturing to marketing to R&D.

But one thing I've learned over the last few years, as I've traveled the world to research the changing logic of innovation for my new book, Practically Radical, is that the most determined innovators aren't just committed to learning. They are also committed to teaching. They understand that the only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership, and that the most powerful way to demonstrate your position as a thought leader is to teach other organizations what you know.

Sharing Knowledge Keeps You Learning

One compelling example of this phenomenon is a health-care provider in Seattle called Virginia Mason, a 90-year-old hospital system with 400 doctors and nearly 5,000 employees. Dr. Gary Kaplan, the organization's CEO, is a legend in healthcare circles for the turnaround he's led since taking charge in February 2000. At the time, Virginia Mason was struggling with deteriorating finances, inefficient processes, and uneven quality. Kaplan and his colleagues became committed students of the Toyota Production System, the blend of management techniques that fueled the rise of the most powerful car company in the world. The CEO led frequent pilgrimages to Japan, adopted the strategies, practices, and management language of its Japanese mentor, and devised a whole new way of running a hospital that that has delivered staggering improvements.

In other words, Virginia Mason became the ultimate learning organization. Now it aspires to become the ultimate teaching organization. Eighteen months ago, Kaplan created the Virginia Mason Institute and opened the doors of his hospital to the outside word. The Institute leads tours of its facilities and explains how they work, teaches classes in its management techniques, and otherwise shares what Virginia Mason knows with individual executives and entire healthcare systems.

Why bother? "First and foremost," Kaplan told me, "this is about our vision to be the quality leader in our field and to help transform the field as a whole. Part of our mission as a company is to help improve our industry. But the more we educate, the faster we move as well. This will spur us on, push us to keep getting better, and people will chase our taillights. By teaching others what we've learned, it forces us to keep learning."

Every Organization Can Become a Teaching Organization

Meanwhile, over the last eight years, Chief Dean Esserman has transformed the police department of Providence, Rhode Island from something of a joke-a department known for corruption and ineptitude-into a national model of law enforcement. Now he wants to turn it into something more, a "teaching police department" modeled on the great teaching hospitals of Boston and elsewhere that train doctors and promote state-of-the-art medical practices.

Esserman persuaded police chiefs in a consortium of cities to exchange ideas, swap personnel, and experiment in new techniques to battle guns, drugs, and other shared problems. "We want to become a place that embraces research, that figures out and spreads methodologies that work in the ways that medical schools do," he told me. "Think of what it would mean to create that sort of institution and those types of values in a police department."

So this year, by all means, stay focused as a leader on what you and your company need to learn. But don't miss the opportunity to share what you already know. The most idea-driven organizations have a chance to become the best teaching organizations - and we never forget our best teachers.

Image courtesy of flickr user, Natural Step Online

  • William Taylor

    William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His new book is Practically Radical. You can follow him on Twitter at @practicallyrad.