Bring Confucius to Confusion

Last week I started teaching my undergraduate leadership course. I gave all the students a blue 3×5 index card and a gold one.  “Write a blue card if something made you feel the blues in here,” I told them, “and a gold if something made you feel golden.” Over the course of seven semesters one message has dominated the gold cards turned back in to me:

“I felt golden when you had us break into smaller groups to discuss the issue.”

I’ve got to tell you that I always cringe a little when I read that card. Why? I have a hidden assumption that there is a basic fixed-sum at work:  it’s either me (smartly) teaching, or it’s them talking.  So, the more they talk, the less time for me to teach.  Does that card mean I need to teach less?  And the more they like their discussions, then, my assumption goes, the less they like what I am teaching.  Like most assumptions, this one, when expressed clearly, looks both vain and foolhardy.

And their gold-card direction reflects clearly the message attributed to Confucius.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

I know this is right. The students will remember and incorporate the learning much more effectively when they have had the opportunity to experience the ideas and to have exchanged them with each other.

Of course, this Confucian wisdom speaks as powerfully to us as managers and parents and preachers, as it does to those of us who teach.  We think our job is to pour knowledge – and that is a part – but whether our people are selling, learning, teaching, assembling, or cutting grass, they’ll learn — and own the work — so much more powerfully when we get them to talk and engage, than when we do the talking.

What if you gave them say 10% more time on this week’s agendas, meetings, presentations and reviews to speak their mind?!

Lead with your best self,




  • Gain Favorable Attention

    People distrust salespeople and professors. They have built-in detectors to tune out pitches. And once the pitch detector goes off, information flow stops.

    When you hope to gain the favorable attention of another person, consider stating your intention upfront. The more direct you are in stating your intention, the more likely you will be able to experience an authentic conversation where each party shares what’s important to them.

    To ‘sell’ your idea, product or service, you must pass the ACID test:

    A. Gain favorable Attention,

    C. Inspire Confidence,

    I. Build Interest,

    D. Desire surfaces.

    When ‘desire’ surfaces, the other person(s) take(s) the lead in the conversation while you begin to provide the evidence necessary to justify the transaction.
    Taking the lead in the classroom makes for a more interesting and therefore a higher learning opportunity.

    • John,
      This strikes me as very much within a leader-knows-best, influence model. I’m talking about a different kind of engagement in which people don’t just “get” what I want them to get, but they actually create something on their own, something different than I might have in mind.
      Maybe I’m not understanding.

  • Always remember that the brain that does the work is the brain that learns. As interesting and engaging as you are, if you are always talking, you are doing the work. Listening is passive, small group discussion is active.

    • Rosie, educator that you are, you’ve put this so clearly. It’s about engagement, energy, right? That’s the underlying problem with “the” leader in general: it drives “the” leader’s energy and lets everyone else off the hook.

  • Maybe “Bring Coolidge to Confusion” too?

    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
    Calvin Coolidge
    In the group setting you get to field-test your talent, genius and education, by exercising a little persistence and determination. You are “doing” and then “understanding” based on the feedback you receive.

  • Way back (an eon or two), when I wrote systems documentation at a university for a living, I worked with a team of students. With their help (and numbers) we produced >4,000 pages of documentation on five brand new administrative systems. We collaborated via e-mail. As the employees learned to use the systems, my team communicated with them via email to map out each new step. Each piece was shared, back-and-forth, several times until it worked. The employees became experts on the system and beta-tested the documentation on the fly. It was amazing to experience, but because the students also became experts on the systems, the process was never used again.

  • Confucius speaks to whole issue of “Leading with your best self” when he writes of JEN.

    A person of jen,
    Confucius observes, “wishing to establish his own character, also establishes
    the character of others.” A person of jen “brings the good things of others to
    completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.” Jen
    is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in

    Born to Be Good: The Science of a
    Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner (2009)

  • Great teachers know that their students have depth within that need to be explored and exposed. The round table amongst peers is a great way to open up the minds of young intellectuals. As you impart here and there (during this learning method) you teach collaborations and partnership. I’ve encouraged students in respectful lively discourse. I’ve learned some great things from allowing that process to evolve and unfold. I like that you do that with young leaders (no insult intended) because it allows you to have different paths of conversation on the same subject matter likely because each group takes shape differently on their approach and opinions. You’re not any less of a teacher to allow great minds to collaborate. That’s why they feel Golden!!!

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