A Leader Understands the Importance of Disagreement
I had the great privilege recently to teach a Leadership course for a new MBA program at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. There were twelve women in the class who ranged in age from late twenties to fifty-something and held jobs in organizations from the Fortune 50 to a local county agency.
We had some important disagreements during our time together. And while I can’t speak for any of the students, I truly enjoyed the education I got as a result. I hope they did, too.
There are two things that I appreciate most as I think about how we disagreed. The first was the respect we offered in expressing our viewpoints and listening to each other. The second was the time we took to consider different perspectives and truly learn from them.
As a child, I grew up in an education system that held the teacher’s point of view as sacrosanct. Disagreement was unheard of because no one in the room was smarter than the teacher. Besides that, children were ‘to be seen and not heard’ in those days.
It followed naturally that other authority figures—bosses, policemen, government leaders—were also smarter and more powerful, so obeying their directives was accepted as the right thing to do.
Those days are long gone. That’s a good news/bad news deal. The good news is that ideas come from everyone and everywhere. Sharing them can make us all smarter. The bad news is that not all ideas are good or useful. Sorting through them takes time and judgment. More bad news is that learning how to disagree gracefully is a trial and error proposition. Many people never get there.
In the context of our Leadership course during a time when business embraces a global community, multiple generations, and all sorts of ethical challenges, the opportunity to disagree was rich!
What I experienced is that there is still a practical power inequity of teacher as ultimate grade determiner. This adds a measure of tension which has the potential to reduce the quality of disagreement and learning. Once again, I am fortunate to have been involved with a group of motivated women whose desire to learn and grow superseded their insistence on getting straight A’s.
But the tension was great because our academic and business cultures still equate good grades with success. Businesses often select candidates on this basis. But when it comes to leadership, the integration and application of learning is far more important than a checklist of academic activities successfully completed. This is where education stumbles and the expectations of employers get frustrated.
Students want to know what teachers and teaching institutions want. They structure their lives accordingly for a short while, anticipating good grades, good jobs, and a good life as a result of compliance.
But compliance doesn’t cut it in a world that moves in irrational ways with rules that change on a whim. If I offered anything to my Leadership students, it was the challenge to see the world clearly, make meaning in a purposeful way, and choose a path for themselves and potential followers that would be worthwhile.
This is not always a welcome challenge. Our biggest disagreements came down to final grades. In the exchanges, I learned to be a better instructor. I gained an appreciation for how students still view themselves through the prism of their grades. Having struggled myself to be found not only competent, but also worthy of notice, I understood their feelings.
But grades fade with time. Character and integrated learning deepen and get stronger. Disagreements are vital to learning about one’s ability to hear and learn from another. And the importance of disagreement is that, in the end, it can become a gift of character.