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The Biggest Difference between Success and Mediocrity for Teachers and Leaders


Guest articles > The Biggest Difference between Success and Mediocrity for Teachers and Leaders


by: Lisa Earle McLeod


Do you remember your most horrible teacher? What about your worst boss? You can probably still hear their words in your head.

I have vivid memories of my sixth grade teacher, whom I shall not name, peering over her glasses at me, rolling her eyes, and uttering her familiar refrain, “Lisa Earle, be quiet. I’ve told you a thousand times, no one wants to hear what you have to say.”

While I do have forgiveness in my heart for her, because lord knows I was a handful, I also remember what seemed to be her utter disdain for my very existence.

Negative interactions with someone in a powerful position have a profound and lasting effect on our lives.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Ben Orlin, a high school teacher and tutor in Oakland CA writes,

“With each teacher responsible for a hundred students or more, the typical kid occupies a teacher’s thoughts for — at best — a minute or two per day. But each student only has a handful of teachers. Every instructor looms large in her world, wielding power over her days, via class periods; her nights, via homework; and her future, via grades. She spends much of her time thinking about the teacher’s demands, the teacher’s expectations, the teacher’s preferences and inconsistencies.”

The same could be said of a boss, they have hundreds of interactions with employees, yet the only one that matters to the employee is the one they have with him.

Orlin writes, “When a teacher briefly focuses attention on a particular student, it comes with the heat and intensity of a spotlight. A moment the teacher barely remembers might stick with the student for years.”

Being a leader can be downright terrifying when you think about the impact you have on others.

I’ve had both horrible and amazing bosses and teachers, and I’ve watched my kids experience the same. In the end, the difference between success and failure comes down to intent. Every employee and every student wants to know — Do you want me to be successful?

Sadly, many people reach the conclusion that the authority figure in their life would rather critique them, than help them.

Our current educational system has endlessly and rigorously focused on knowledge outcomes at the expense of classroom experience. But good teachers, and good leaders know that this is a fatal error.

Orlin writes, “Classroom lessons may slip quickly through students’ fingers, but the classroom experience lingers in memory. A teacher swings a heavy club, and we can leave big, purple bruises if we’re not careful.”

Orlin describes a situation when he was frustrated with a student who was failing his class. He writes, “I realized I’d made a deeper mistake. I’d chalked up her lack of success to apathy, distractions, low effort — anything that would put the ball in her court rather than mine.”

When a teacher or the leader consistently blames the student or employee, the person quickly reaches the conclusion, “you’re not on my side.”

Poor classroom experiences, just like poor leadership experiences, have a chilling effect on knowledge and performance. I don’t remember a single thing I learned in the sixth grade, yet I vividly recall my teacher’s eye rolling.

If the majority of your language is critique, it’s unlikely that the recipients will believe that you are invested in their success.

If you’re a teacher, parent or leader, you want your people to be successful. The question you need to ask yourself is, do they know that?


Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces. She the author of several books including Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud, a Wiley publication, released Nov. 15, 2012. She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches.

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Lisa's Blog How Smart People Can Get Better At Everything

Copyright 2014 Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.

Contributor: Lisa Earle McLeod

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