Learning and Leadership: A Prison Story

By Robert E. Quinn

Yesterday I had lunch with a graduate student. I had not met him before. Our discussion started out like most academic discussions. But as he sensed that I was truly interested in his ideas and in him, he began to open up, like a flower in the sun. Our conversation became more and more animated and generative. As I listened to him, it became clear that he had the mind and the heart of transformational leader.

He is an African American who wants to make a difference in the health of poor people in the inner city. He said many things that inspired me, but there was one that I found particularly interesting. He spoke of volunteering to teach people in prisons. He said that if he were going to accomplish his goal of helping the poor, he needed to understand people in prison.

His attitude was remarkable. He told one inmate: “I do not drive all the way out here to get paid, I do not get paid. I do not drive all the way out here because I think it is going to get me into to heaven. I drive out here because I want to learn.”

This statement caught my attention. I have been working on a manuscript about highly effective teachers, the very few who have miraculous impact in the classroom. These are also transformational leaders. I have written a hundred pages about them, but if I had to boil the message down to one phrase, it would be this: They have a higher purpose, and that purpose is to learn how to amplify the learning of others. To help other people transform is to help them learn who they are. To do that, we have to be learning who we are. We have to be in the state of change, it is then that we find the capacity to love who we are. When we love ourselves, we can truly love others, and that is when they find the courage to change.

As time ran out on us, he walked me all the way back to my office. We did not want the conversation to end. As we finally parted, I felt reminded of how important it is to have a higher life purpose and to pursue it while in the constant state of learning about how to pursue it. I am grateful to have had lunch with a transformational graduate student.