Teaching is one of the most selfless professions one can take on. Professors dedicate their lives to teaching others and raising the next generation of leaders in business, media, technology and more. In turn, there are many leadership lessons that "servant leaders" can learn from professors.
To dive deeper into this topic, I gathered some perspective from university professor and startup founder, Dr. Hossein Rahnama. In addition to serving as the CEO of his company Flybits, Dr. Rahnama is a visiting professor of machine intelligence at the MIT Media Lab, as well as an associate professor at Ryerson University where he co-founded the top university-based incubator in the world, The Digital Media Zone.
Here are the six servant leadership lessons Dr. Rahnama has learned from being a professor.
1. Ditch the "sit and listen" lecture model.
Much like students, employees have heard enough lectures and the model has proven to be ineffective. Breaking from the traditional academic "sit and listen" approach in favor of a collaborative "try and see" model cultivates employees who thrive in team environments, know how to learn and use creative thinking to get results.
2. Set challenging, but realistic, project goals.
Academics create course modules and stage gates to track progress and help students understand the interconnectivity of each lesson. Dr. Rahnama has carried this core academic principle over to his company Flybits, where he develops challenging, yet realistic intervals or "phased-based milestones" for each project.
3. Don't pigeon hole potential.
There is a genius in every single individual and our duty as leaders is to identify this excellence and nourish it. In Dr. Rahnama's role as both a professor and CEO, he provides support and encouragement so that each individual travels in their learning beyond their comfort zone for success. Through this approach, he has observed computer science students become business leaders and marketing interns become excellent programmers.
In turn, he's learned to not pigeon hole employees by their past but rather implement interdisciplinary learning frameworks and open up their futures to endless possibilities.
4. Hire lifelong students.
Students, by nature, may have less immediately-recognizable experience than seasoned professionals, but they do have two things that are invaluable to any company: passion and ambition. They are eager to learn and have a high drive for self-improvement and growth. Seek out these characteristics when hiring, because building a team of lifelong students cultivates a work environment where passion and ambition are free to expand.
5. Give others the freedom to grow.
As founders, executives and team leaders, we can easily fall into the trap where we feel the need to be center stage at all times.
However, a good leader must know when to stand back and give their team room to grow and shine. Assign your teams highly challenging tasks and encourage independence within a safe environment; an environment where employees are free to be creative, experiment and even at times, fail. Offer guidance from the sidelines and reassure them that you'll be there if they need help.
"Hossein's leadership nurtures decision-makers, ambitious individuals and not only leaders but leaders who are passionate about nurturing leadership in the next generation," said Justin Cheung, Lead UX Designer and early-stage team member at Flybits. "His 'you're in charge from day one, but I'm here if you need me' style of leadership creates a genuine feeling of autonomy and empowerment among our team."
6. Avoid creating dropouts by preventing burnout.
As a university professor, Dr. Rahnama administers one or two exams per semester because he understands that exams every week lead to burnout and dropout.
Unfortunately, in the corporate world this pressure is unavoidable. Promised product delivery dates, for example, are often non-negotiable.
However, having a constant sense of urgency causes unnecessary stress and kills morale. That's why at Flybits, Dr. Rahnama designs each phased-based milestone to act as a "semester" toward project advancement, to keep his team on track without causing unneeded stress.
As servant leaders, we have to recognize the reality of burnout and be mindful to not emotionally overload our teams or we risk losing them forever.