What Iconic Teachers Can Teach Small Business Owners About Leadership

Pop culture isn’t always just empty entertainment; every once in a while there are characters and themes that resonate with audiences, and inspire them to greater action. This …

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Pop culture isn’t always just empty entertainment; every once in a while there are characters and themes that resonate with audiences, and inspire them to greater action. This is particularly true of some of cinemas greatest fictional teachers. These teaching greats, whose lessons and methods of education still persist and inspire to this day, include Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid,” Professor Dumbledore of “Harry Potter” fame, Mr. Escalante in “Stand and Deliver,” LouAnne Johnson from the movie “Danerous Minds” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” History teacher Mr. Hand. Aloha, Mr. Hand! For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

What can iconic teachers from The Karate Kid, Stand and Deliver and Harry Potter teach us about leadership?

Wax on, wax off? How to pass AP calculus? Turn anyone who disagrees with your business plan into a toad? Not exactly.

Business leaders told us earlier this year that they can learn quite a lot from dramatic action — the characters in the plays of William Shakespeare, specifically — and they can learn quite a lot from the Hollywood’s most famous teachers, as well.

From creating a culture that fosters innovation and dedication to challenging your employees to instilling confidence, the lessons of some of pop culture’s most famous teachers — both real people turned into screen leaders and fictional lecturers — goes far beyond the classroom.

In this month’s back-to-school inspired leadership article, TheStreet chose five favorite movie teachers to learn from.

1. Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid

Washing old cars, sanding wood floors and painting fences wasn’t exactly what Daniel LaRusso had in mind when he thought he was learning how to fight karate, but his teacher (and his apartment super) Mr. Miyagi was adamant this was the only way to train.

It’s clear that Mr. Miyagi saw potential in Daniel and realized he needed a bit of self-confidence to achieve his goal of mastering karate.

Like Miyagi, as a manager you are also a mentor and your task is to identify and cultivate high-potential employees. At the same time, coddling professional development is not your role.

Mr. Miyagi had some tough love tactics with Daniel. As a manager, "there’s going to be some things [employees] may not agree with or understand, but once they come through that tunnel … the lessons learned will be invaluable," says Steven Raz, co-founder and managing partner of Cornerstone Search Group, an executive search firm that concentrates on the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.

Instilling confidence in a student or employee can do wonders for their determination with a task or project. This can be especially profitable if the company is either just launching or struggling.

"As a teacher, I try to set very high expectations for my students. I’m demanding, but fair. The movie really exemplifies that in a way," says Professor Michael Roberto, a professor of management and leadership and director of Bryant University’s Center for Program Innovation. "That’s what leaders should do too."

Roberto adds that managers shouldn’t go so far as to set an environment where failure is punished so much that employees are afraid to try again.

"What you want to see from them in failure is learning and improving. You want to see that they’re absorbing the lesson from that failure," he says.

2. Professor Dumbledore, Harry Potter

Headmaster of the wizardry school Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore is the epitome of a good teacher and manager.

In the world of Potter, Harry and company are constantly faced with life and death decisions. Dumbledore guides Harry and his wizardry peers through these challenges, but provides them with just enough information to ultimately find a solution on their own, enriching their problem solving abilities.

In a small business, it’s a good characteristic for employees to have or learn, given that owners cannot be everywhere at once.

At the same time, Dumbledore is a good example of leaders that are able to "keep their cool," Cornerstone’s Raz adds.

"It doesn’t matter what issues you’re dealing with, you need to keep calm. If the employees see their leaders panicking that just worries everybody, but good leaders will use that chaos or bump in the road as a teaching point," Raz says.

3. Mr. Escalante, Stand and Deliver

Based on a true story of a high school math teacher’s ability to gain accolades for challenging the education system, Stand and Deliver’s Jaime Escalante is able to make headway with underprivileged students, especially the troublesome ones, in a school where discipline is more important than learning.

Perhaps his challenge is best summed up by Lou Diamond Phillips’ line in the movie "What is cal-coo-lus?" Yet Escalante’s unorthodox methods in teaching calculus to these high school students eventually prevail.

The 1988 film’s message to managers and leaders is one of motivation and inspiration. "In this case we have a teacher that really needed to get the message across to help motivate kids to even get to class," Raz says. "That can apply to a company going through a turnaround or tough time where it looks like the ship is sinking."

Managers need to show how the goal will affect employees personally, he says. "Let’s look at where we’re trying to get to and what it means to you personally. Why should you come to work every day?"

Escalante was "getting them to show up and believe in themselves," Raz notes.

Longer term, it shows how taking a leap of faith leads to succeeding in goals.

4. LouAnne Johnson, Dangerous Minds

Retired U.S. Marine LouAnne Johnson has a similar challenge as Stand and Deliver’s Escalante. She is up against inner-city, gang-oriented, low achieving students that give her little respect at the beginning of the year. Her task as their English teacher seems too tall an order with students that essentially were "unteachable."

But again, with unconventional tactics and a refusal to stick to the prescribed curriculum, the teacher is able to reach her students, even the most difficult ones.

Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants and an adjunct professor at Fairfield University teaching professional and business writing courses, says Johnson’s dedication to her team, aka students, was a strong factor in her ability to connect with the kids.

"I’ve conducted leadership training sessions with managers that were experts in their fields of expertise but they were cold, aloof and were not invested in their employees’ success," writes Magas, who formerly held corporate human resources positions. "Yet studies show the highest performing managers and leaders are the most open and caring. Employees from all walks of life react positively to their manager’s positive encouragement and openness and this translates into higher performance."

In particular, Johnson’s strategy to be approachable to these kids, most of whom come from broken homes with little discipline is what matters most. She also connects with the students by "letting them have their own voice, through language and writing. By letting the unspoken speak, she instills confidence in these students that they can learn," Magas adds.

"If you can’t show you care, you don’t get the buy in and you’re not going to have someone work on what they need to do or even make it to work on time. That starts from the top down," Magas says.

5. Mr. Hand, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Our final teacher, Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Mr. Hand is an example of how not to manage.

In one of the more memorable scenes from the movie, surfer/stoner student Jeff Spicoli seems to not care in the least about Mr. Hand’s class subject matter — American history — exemplified by Spicoli getting a pizza delivery during class. After a lengthy discussion on whose time is being wasted more, an enraged Mr. Hand "shares" the pizza with the other students and not Spicoli.

On the one hand, the tumultuous (and hysterical) relationship between teacher and student shows how stern lecturing is likely not the best way to engage people. As a leader, you want your subordinates to believe in your vision by engaging them as well as making them a part of the building process in achieving the goals, Professor Roberto says.

On the other hand, Mr. Hand shows a valuable lesson in that time should not be wasted. In one of the final scenes, he shows up at Spicoli’s house on prom night to "waste" his time teaching the lost Cuba lesson from pizza day.

Translated: time is money, money is time. Your employees need to be accountable for their responsibilities.

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.

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