Teaching and Leading Positively, Part 1: The Digestion of Experience

January 21, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

This six-part series, “Teaching and Leading Positively,” explores the goals of teaching positive leadership: not merely to serve as an  instructor conveying the theories or practices drawn for positive organizational scholarship, but to prompt lasting transformation in the way our students work and live. Serving as this kind of catalyst requires full engagement on our part. We must live from the positive leadership framework, allowing our students to learn by our example, each other’s, and their own.

When I teach, my objective is not to transfer information to my students. It is to transform their identities. My history as a teacher tells me that if I can accomplish this objective, they will experience a huge jump in their capacity to influence their own lives and the lives of others. To accomplish my objective, I must have them do something unusual.

My wife was telling one of her friends about my writing frequent journal entries and sharing them. The woman later approached me about it. She asked several questions, including how much time it took to write a typical entry. I told her 15 minutes to an hour.

That is a serious time commitment, she responded. I explained that I see the journal writing as a form of meditation that has become like a positive addiction. She understood the benefit, but wondered whether a modern professional who leaves for work very early, puts in 12 hours, and comes home exhausted could accomplish such a thing?

I acknowledged that it would be hard for someone like that, and the conversation went on to other topics. But my heart stayed there for a time. Of course, I recognized the demands of modern life, yet I felt a deep sense of sadness about how we let the world act upon us.

My mind went back to a message from a stranger who had read one of my books. Life experiences may be developmental, he suggested, but “only if we have the opportunity and courage to reflect on and learn from these experiences, especially in the community of others.”

I thought his statement was insightful. He went on to share a related thought, quoting a community organizer: “Most people I meet are lumps of undigested experience.”

In the corporate world, people are busy, and they learn things every day. Yet their learning is not transformative and they are not empowered. One reason is that they allow themselves to become “lumps of undigested experience.”

This is also true of the students in our classrooms. Most do not “have the opportunity and courage to reflect.” If they do, they tend not to do it in “the community of others.”

Our task—in the classroom, as in our own lives and the lives of those who look for leadership and support—is to create a space in which it can happen. In tomorrow’s blog, I will consider that topic.