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“Each One, Teach One”: Are you both student and teacher?

a photo of Robben island

The more senior you are in hierarchy or tenure, the higher the risk is that you stop learning. And the more junior you are, the less likely you are going to share your knowledge and teach your more experienced colleagues. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have visited many organisations, and to have been on a significant number of best-practice benchmarking trips. On one of these trips, over 10 years ago, we visited several South African professional services, finance, and manufacturing organisations to learn about their approach to Lean and Continuous Improvement. We learned so much there.

But the stand-out learning that time was from a side-trip to Robben Island, of the coast of Cape Town.

Robben Island of course was the offshore prison where Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were held captive. Being escorted by a former prisoner who served time with the late great leader of South Africa, I stood outside Mandela’s cell, emulated his ‘long walk to freedom’ through the prison gates, and visited the quarry where prisoners were put to work. The quarry was where our guide told us the story captured by the quote of this article: Each one, teach one.

The story revolves around the cave in the quarry. With no facilities at the quarry, the prisoners were instructed to use the cave as their toilet. And with the cave being a toilet and all for years, none of the guards ever ventured in there for obvious reasons. This created an opportunity for the prisoners, the story goes. With no guards and only two people in the cave at a time, the leading prisoners agreed this was the perfect place to have uninterrupted conversations. To learn, to expand their knowledge. And rather than a top-down approach, they opted for a ‘forced’ two-way conversation. Each prisoner was asked to teach the other something, anything – a topic that interested the teacher or interested the student. From the obvious legal and political arguments, to history, sports, the animal kingdom, or the flora of their home region, etcetera. Each One, Teach One.

So, ask yourself: are you both student and teacher? Do you create an environment where juniors can teach, and where seniors can learn? Do you go out and ask questions to learn, or only questions to confirm: do you practice the ‘humble enquiry’ technique? It is a common gripe of very senior leaders that they never see reality, and never hear the truth. An ‘each one, teach one’ approach can remedy this. Can you think of an example where you are both a student and a teacher?