In recent years, the humble leader has been a hot topic. We’re all familiar with various leadership types with a less positive relationship; take, for example, the authoritarian leader. However, in my recent conversation with the Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer of the University of Michigan, Dr. Ravi Pendse, he introduced me to a new type of leader — the teachable leader. While humility is a necessary component, it is more like an initial step, as the leader continually opens themself up to the possibility of taking on the student role in the interaction. Hello, next-level vulnerability! Sounds scary? I concur. Fortunately, Ravi’s guiding us as we come to terms with who this leadership style asks us to be.
Learn to bend
Ravi kicked off our conversation by sharing an almost parable-like story from his childhood. He remembered how one summer, every day when he came home, his mother would say, “Pick me a mango off the tree.” And every day, his response would be the same: he wasn’t tall enough to get at the mangos. Then one day, as Ravi walked into his backyard, he realized, to his surprise, that he could reach the mangos, so he grabbed one and joyfully ran to his mother. When she asked him how he managed to capture the fruit, he told her that he didn’t know. He just was suddenly able to reach it. She took him out to the tree and showed him how, now that it was heavy with fruit, it bent low, making it so it was within his grasp. His mother told him that as we grow and gain influence, our job is still to bend to share the fruits of our knowledge and experience with others. If we think too highly of ourselves, our gifts might be hoarded and wasted. But by being willing to meet people where they are, it opens up whole new opportunities for both sides.
View everyone as a teacher
After laying this groundwork for humility, Ravi’s mother instilled in him the mindset that everyone is a teacher. In Sanskrit, this translates to “Acharya Deva Bhava.” Whether it’s the bartender or the person sitting beside you, they have something that we can learn. This is why Ravi now engages with an attitude of receiving information and not passing judgment. The end result is that this attitude has enabled him to learn more, and some of that knowledge has come from the most unlikely people or situations. By being open to learning new ideas from any source, he is constantly growing. The key to all of it, he said, is listening.
Leadership can mean staying silent
This is why sometimes, as a leader, the most important role you play is that of a listener, instead of a problem solver. There are a few reasons this is the case. Perhaps, given time, the speaker will work their way to the solution you saw. If so, you provided them the space to grow and learn. Or they could even come to a better solution, which could have been missed if you had intervened. Ravi went on to say, “This is why I typically let everyone else speak first in a meeting. I have found that if I do speak early on, it can be viewed as a final decision, so I try to hold back and not problem solve everything.” By stepping back and giving space for the unique insights and contributions of the individuals on the team, it creates more space for everyone to learn together and find better solutions.
This concept was one that immediately resonated with me. For those who know me personally, it doesn’t take long to notice that I can be quick to voice my opinions and try to troubleshoot everyone’s problems. However, I can look back on moments in my career and see when the tables were turned. I remember times when I, as the “workplace supervisor,” sat back and was taught insightful lessons from someone who was technically lower on the corporate ladder. If those moments had such an impact when I wasn’t aware of this leadership style, I am truly looking forward to my growth from intentionally embracing this mentality. Am I nervous about the vulnerability inherent in not being large and in-charge? Absolutely. But I’m also excited to see what opportunities will arise as I turn over a new leaf by following Ravi’s example.
Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.