Thomas DeLong on teachers who lead and leaders who teach: An interview by Bob Morris

Thomas J. DeLong is a Baker Foundation Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. Since 1997 Tom has taught 20,000 MBA’s and Executives both on campus and throughout the world. He is internationally recognized for his teaching ability, his books, and course development.

His book Flying Without a Net was recognized by the editors of Amazon Publishing as one of the top ten books written on leadership this century. His latest book, Teaching by Heart: One Professor’s Journey to Inspire, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (January 2020).

Before joining the Harvard Faculty, Tom was Chief Development Officer and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., where he was responsible for the firm’s human capital and focused on issues of organizational strategy and organizational change.

At Harvard, he teaches MBA and executive courses focused on leadership, organizational behavior, managing human capital, and career management. Tom received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. from Purdue University in Industrial Supervision.  He received a post-doctoral fellowship from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the father of five daughters.

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What have been the greatest influence on your personal growth?

My father arrived home from WWII after a three-year traumatic adventure leading tanks through North Africa and Europe. I knew something wasn’t right psychologically as I saw him attempt to parent my two older brothers. He was tough on them, sometimes physically and emotionally abusive. From the very beginning I learned how to observe, listen, and respond in group settings. I became intensely interested at a young age in interpersonal dynamics.

I believe my life and career were affected most because of my father and his interest in loving us but not knowing how. To this day I believe human interactions are sacred. My efforts to understand interpersonal dynamics is related to my father and his struggle with the aftermath of the war. I love him and saw him gradually improve with me and my younger siblings.

Throughout your professional career thus far?

I was a 29-year old new professor at Brigham Young University. We had two young daughters, nowhere to live. The stress and strain of this new challenge seemed evident to an older man who I had met during my training at MIT. His name was Chase Peterson. He was the Vice-President and later President of the University of Utah. For some reason he valued my insights and observations. He would invite me to come and sit in on important meetings, to give him and the senior team my impressions of what they might do to be more effective as a group and individually. Over the 10 years that he served in leadership positions in academia he leaned on me as a process consultant. I was trying to succeed as a new professor who looked 20 years younger than any of Chase’s colleagues. Yet he believed in me.

Whenever I question my abilities as professor, teacher, leader, I harkened back to those days that a very wise man, whom I valued and trusted, sought me out for guidance. When Chase passed away five years ago, I cried and cried. I miss him to this day. He lifted me up by believing in my potential.

Have there been any turning points in your life so far?

During a flight from Salt Lake City to New York City I found myself sitting next to the President of Morgan Stanley. I was on my way to present research at a conference on the east coast. John Mack had been skiing in Utah. While I practiced my speech, we began talking about my training as a social scientist, how I worried about the dysfunctionality of institutions, and how leaders were disappointing on myriad levels.

At the end of the plane ride he told me that he would contact me. Six months later I left my deanship at Brigham Young and joined the operating committee of Morgan Stanley as the first social scientist in the history of Wall Street. My charge was to teach leaders to lead. Help the organization become more aligned with what they purported and how professionals experienced the organization. I knew after a year that I had an uphill battle. I was naïve. I didn’t realize how frightened professionals were of any change. They were reluctant to reflect on individual behavior. They looked for ways to control and protect the status quo.

Most important, I really missed teaching. I needed the Morgan Stanley experience to realize that I had found my sweet spot. I had found the mechanism for me to live my purpose. That was a major turning point. Today, I find myself laughing inside when speaking with a student who is frustrated she doesn’t know her purpose at 26 years of age. I was 44 when I finally knew. At 46 I left Wall Street and joined the faculty at The Harvard Business School.

I am eager to know your response to this observation by Maya Angelou:  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This quote is the cornerstone of my teaching and leading philosophy. When I leave the room, I want students to not think of me a certain way. I want them to feel differently about themselves when they are not in my presence. However, I believe that I must create a classroom environment that is safe enough and challenging enough that students will remember the feeling they had in one of my classes.

That is, “how do others experience themselves when they are with you?” The essence of our efforts in educating our students to help them make a positive difference in the world. I constantly ask myself, “How can I do that more effectively?”

When students arrive on campus, they have worked so hard to be accepted they have created perfect resumes. The irony is that they begin to think that they are their resumes. We invite them to consider another approach. We invite them to explore who they really are while attending our school. We want them to be able to look in the mirror and recognize the person that is staring back at them. Further, we want the students to feel grounded enough and secure enough so that they can focus on others as much — if not more — than they do themselves.

What did you draw upon when you began to write Teaching by Heart?

In the book I try and outline what I’ve observed over the years that teachers and leaders do to create a particular presence in the classroom. I write about how certain teachers and leaders have the ability to combine sharing content with knowing students with creating a safe environment with being authentic. What needs to happen before, during, and after class to leverage the time we have together. Through this integration we create a “feel” that permeates the classroom and the school itself.

One of the worries I have in current organizations is that leaders don’t feel a responsibility to inspire. They are chasing quarterly profits and are not focused on how professionals are connecting with the firm. Leaders become distracted by numbers and forget about the human dimension within the organization. Leaders virtually never get up in the morning and see their identities centered around being teachers. When I ask leaders how much time they spend each day teaching, they struggle with the question. They’ve never even seen themselves as teachers. I emphasize many times in the book the intersection of these two critical roles. It is only through teaching that employees and students will “feel” differently about themselves.

The CEOs I know are asking different questions than they did only a few years ago. What does your crystal ball reveal as the greatest challenge during (let’s say) the next 3-5 years?

Will it be possible to manage the speed of innovation and invention and technology while keeping humans in mind? Humans are not built to process information as fast as technology can. There are more and more discoveries every day. How will I support the workforce that is attempting to keep up with a world spinning faster and faster?

My worry is that nothing has been taken off the list of responsibilities of leaders in the past 30 years. It’s only been additive. When competent and reasonable professionals are told they have to do more and more with less and less and do it faster, the emotion that is evoked is ongoing guilt because no matter how much the professional tries, she/he can’t accomplish all the tasks at hand. Thus, employees begin to cut corners. They cut the most corners in terms of relationships. They believe they can ignore or disregard or simply assume everything is OK when that is not the case.

If you give professionals too much to do, often anxieties emerge that prevent individuals from doing their best work.

As you know, I write in the book about how leaders and teachers might slow down the spinning world and allow students and employees to become more thoughtful and focused in an attempt to become more effective. It is possible to work more deeply both on the task at hand and with the employees themselves. This is my biggest worry. The velocity in which we live will whither the soul of individuals and the souls of organizations.

The goal of the leader is — or, in my opinion, should be — to keep as many people as possible connected to the soul of the firm. The same holds true for teachers. Can you imagine what is possible when 90 students are “breathing” the same breath, so to speak. Everyone is sitting on the edge of their respective seats. They are listening, asking questions of one another, walking out of class with more questions. They are leaving class having had a moment that everything slowed down.

That is the worry I have for leaders and teachers. Will they have the ability to slow down their respective organizations so everyone can be more effective?

Different authors have different motives. Hemingway once explained that he wrote “to get it out.” What else motivated you to write this brilliant book?

My mentor Jack Gabarro had been asking me for five years to write about what I do in the classroom. My Dean, Nitin Nohria, emphasized that I had been studying teachers for 40 years. I needed to capture what I do in the classroom. Other faculty mentioned that given that I was in the twilight of my career I needed to deconstruct the classroom experience. I also realized that no professor at the Business School had ever attempted to write about what the experience was like.

My initial thought was to write more of a larger book about the relationship between leading and teaching but every time I sat down to write I felt more passion about focusing a bit more on teaching. Recently, as I’ve spoken about the book to various audiences, there is a great deal of energy about how leaders do not see themselves as teachers. It simply is not part of the identity. This is also one of the head-snapping aha’s of this whole experience. I’m believing more and more that this blind spot of leaders is one of the readers they lose touch with their organizations. They lose touch with what is really going on in the organization. They lose the kind of intimacy needed to be proximate to their audiences.

Any head-snapping revelations?

Through writing this book, I realized that I see the world in either/or situations. I think I knew that about myself but it really jumped out during the writing of the book. I either think I did a great job in the classroom or that I failed. My assessment of my teaching on any particular day doesn’t range between six and four on the 1 to 10 scale. It ranges between one and ten. These psychological swings aren’t useful. They are also exhausting.

The other aha for me has been the interest in the book. I began to lose interest in the book in the waning months of writing it. I actually found myself sick of reading it, yet when I sent it out to colleagues or friends, I heard nothing but excitement about what I had written. I specifically sent the book to those I knew would be truth speakers. I’ve given some talks about it and It’s been humbling to see the interest. If this sounds like humblebragging then please edit it out.

What can business leaders learn from teachers?

Great teachers know their students deeply. They know their backgrounds, they seek ways to find the key that unlocks the heart each student. Great teachers talk with students not at them. They know the difference between horizontal communications and vertical communications. Great teachers treat each student as a full and equal partner regardless of age or status. Great teachers are orchestra conductors that guide the class towards desired outcomes. Great teachers listen to each person. They are less interested in dominating, controlling, having the last word. They know how to ask great questions. They have created an environment where everyone feels safe yet courageous enough to take risks.

Great teachers don’t have to use their referent power to dominate, dictate or intimidate. These are all attributes that would enhance leaders. Too many leaders believe everyone wants to hear from them. They talk much more than they listen. They have created patterns of putting sycophants around them. Status and lifestyle and protecting that lifestyle may become more important than anything else. I know I’m being tough on leaders because I don’t believe many are serving the organizations for which they have been asked to lead. It is more about the leader and it is hardly about servant leadership.

What can teachers can learn from leaders?

At times teachers can be myopic and only think about their particular teaching situation. They may have less patience for other parts of the school or for other teachers.

Teachers need to act more secure. Leaders often have a patina of being grounded and in charge that might create more confidence within employees. I guess I’m suggesting that teachers could be more sensitive to other parts of the system. Leaders have to balance myriad parts of the institution and serve as many as possible.

How best to accommodate multiple levels of learning?

I’ve found that the most challenging aspect of processing multiple levels of learning has to do with managing my own mind chatter or inner dialogue. I believe that I must love the content of the class and also love the students. How can I achieve the best outcomes for the students if I’m have conversations inside me that are about me.

The challenge of multiple levels of learning is being focused on what the students are learning. Are they entranced by the discussion of the course? Are they challenging one another with respect and intensity? Are we making progress towards the objectives of the class that day? If a student looks distracted or sad or distant, how can I assist that student to get back in the room with us, contributing in ways that enhance their learning?

During 23 years of teaching English in two boarding schools and one college, I always paid very close attention to how comfortable students are when asking questions. Also, what can I learn from the questions that will help me interact with them more effectively.

Quite right. The superstars in executive search (“headhunters”) all agree that they learn much more from job candidates’ questions than they do from their answers.

That said, I believe that humans learn in three basic ways: they learn new content, new information. Second, they learn by questioning their assumptions about what they believe or assume to be true (“unknowen unknowns”. Three, they learn something about themselves.

My challenge is to keep focused outwardly toward the students. I believe that I will learn more about myself if I’m thrust myself all into the class session. Otherwise, interactions evolve into a class really about me and not about them and the content. With reflection after class I can glean insights and have feelings that will inform what I need to learn or have learned after each session.

Please share some additional thoughts about your classroom style.

This question is connected inextricably with my description of our family as a system. I realized that listening was highly undervalued and underused. That’s the way I flourished in a dysfunctional family. I have been told that somehow I connect with others. I have been guided by the psychologist Rollo May who believed that if we wanted to be effective in our interactions, we need to be interested in the reality of others. I think that to be able to hear and feel and experience another human being is one of the great blessings of living.

So when I’m with others I want them to know that I’m all in, that I’m not thinking or feeling about anything else except them. I expect to focus enough so I find the key to unlock the heart of the other person. I would say it’s that need or desire to understand others that might set me apart.

Any advice for those of us who teach either in the forests of academe or in the vineyards of free enterprise?

I hesitate to give insights when you are the expert of your experience. This is my first assumption. Most teachers teach to the tails, i.e. they focus on the smartest and struggling students. I believe that we should focus more on those that lurk in the shadows of the middle group of students. That also means that I might need assistance from students to help one another. I would also focus more on experiential learning if possible to somehow access as many senses as possible. I believe that some students at the community college level, for example, might feel like second class citizens. I know that their teachers would  have to spen countless hours lifting them up so they see themselves differently.

Now, I’d like to shift the direction of our conversation to five warnings.

I offer these cognitive distortions in the book because they can knock you off center either while teaching or in one-on-one interactions. There are myriad cognitive distortions. These seem to be the ones that are the most common. I’ve experienced them countless times in my teaching experiences.

The first cognitive distortion I confront has to do with allowing negative thoughts and feelings to overwhelm positive emotions. The simple truth is that humans anchor more on negative emotions than positive emotions. Part of it is Darwinian. Our senses send out warning signals that something is wrong, we need to pull back and be careful. Keep Tom alive at all costs. We know that positive emotions dissipate quite quickly. Negative emotions do not. It will be easier for me to access the memory and concomitant emotions when I embarrass a student or use my sarcasm in a hurting way. Realize that I have a memory bank of positive examples where I made a positive difference. Have those stories at the ready when you feel like you are in a hole psychologically.

The second distortion relates with managing your emotions through conversations with self. Rather than allow your inner dialogue to hold you hostage, be an astute observer of what is going on and simply have an explicit conversation with yourself in order to settle yourself down. When J.K. Rowling was speaking at Commencement at Harvard University, we could all tell that she was nervous. She began her remarks by stating to her audience that she was nervous because she felt compared to those in attendance, she was the least educated person. She had just labeled her affect. She settled down and gave a masterful speech on innovation and creativity.

Third, when we communicate and our messages are confusing or ambiguous, the receiver of the message will interpret the communication negatively. When we pass someone in the hallway and the person doesn’t acknowledge us, we often interpret that communication negatively. We begin to hallucinate and make up stories that are most likely not true. Simplicity in communication is the key. Being direct with others is essential so our communication is founded on reality.

Fourth, humans yearn for to be in relationships where both parties are equally committed to one another. We want symmetry in relationships. If we believe that another person is not as invested in the relationship, we often act in ways that are confusing. They may even feel irrational. Yet if we believe someone else is less interested in the relationships, we may begin to talk down or aggressively to the other person. Or we may do the opposite and ignore the other party. If we keep in mind that partnerships, friendships, acquaintances are created through mutual investment and commitment, there is a higher probability that the relationship will remain dynamic.

Finally, don’t wait too long to have tough conversations. The longer we wait the harder it becomes to have a constructive conversation where we hear one another. Managers, leaders, and teachers who have the ability to have myriads of small conversations increase the likelihood of conversations remaining rational, clear and helpful rather than charged with anger and resentment. I’ve observed that many organizations are beginning to question whether performance evaluations actually make a difference. These processes reinforce the notion that meaningful conversations happen once a year where we are really candid with our colleague. In fact, the data suggests that delaying conversations only enhance the possibility that we won’t listen and hear the other person. We will wonder in real time why the other person has waited months to share a message that could have been helpful months before.

Any final thoughts?

In virtually every culture there are holy writings that emphasize that we should behave more like children, that we should see them as role models. When a teacher is knocked off center, when a leader loses his way, I often ask them why we should be more like children. Eventually, I share obvious insights into why they should be our guides.
Children are fearless. They never give up. They are all in all the time. They live their lives 100% of the time. Children know how to play. Children forgive quickly and move on.

Receiving feedback from a child is seen as non-threatening, perhaps even charming. They are dead honest. They say what is in their hearts. Most of the feedback we receive from those who are “grown” comes with anxiety, worries about how the message will be taken, worries about not being able to control the outcome of the message.

My advice to teachers and leaders is to make sure that there are enough people around you that care enough about you that they will be honest and kind simultaneously. If we run from chances to hear the perceptions of others, we become myopic, closed and defensive. Some leaders, as they climb the ladder to success, have the ability to surround themselves with those that tell the leader what the leader wants to hear. This kind of feedback is worse than useless. It’s harmful. It’s collusion. It allows leaders and teachers to live lives of illusion where truth and reality are hiding in the wings.

Anything else before our conversation ends?

I wish someone early in my career would have reminded me that teaching is about others and not about feeding my ego and meeting my needs. That will happen in due time. My role is to create a community of learners that are looking after one another, seeing one another deeply, taking the time to enter into relationships that build the dyad and the whole community. I want to see the heart and soul of students who are blessing my life and the lives of others by being in the classroom.

Teachers must create a community where everyone feels seen. I do believe that at the center of every classroom or trading floor or factory floor, the ability to see another deeply, to truly understand another and make them feel understood is the greatest gift a teacher or leader can give to another human being. If I were to rename this book, I would have entitled it, “Teaching By Heart and Soul.” It’s the process of unlocking the hearts and souls of every student with the right key at the right time. That is the essence of teaching and leading.

Thank you, Tom. I cherish the pleasure of your company.

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Tom cordially invites you to check out these resources.

Barnes & Noble link

Harvard Business Review link

Amazon link

Barnes & Noble link

Harvard Business Review link

Harvard Business School link

YouTube videos link

IndieBound link



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