A Leadership Analogy: My Father Was My High School Physics Teacher

The title is cringeworthy. What could have felt like a teen-angst debacle on steroids was in reality, a non-issue. My father taught chemistry too, and was the only teacher in the school for both subjects. I was in his class for the duration of my junior and senior years.

It worked because of him, not because of me. He had a great relationship with nearly all of the kids including those who never took his classes. While I can’t speak to the exact reasons why that all worked, I can easily pinpoint some primary reasons for his masterful leadership in the classroom.


  • Command of the subject – he’s a physicist by training & trade (for a time, an actual rocket scientist) and was teaching the subject matter, not a curriculum
  • Trust and managed risk – we did lab experiments with dangerous shit: natural gas, fire, sharp objects and chemicals that would never show up in a classroom today
  • Levity and deviation from the norm – he delivered a lesson about gravity in the context of a classic cartoon (an anvil careening down a valley slope and returning up the opposite slope, to a height greater than which it began)
  • Connection to the outside world (this was the killer) – as much as possible, he tied concepts back to experiences outside. Being physics, this is pretty wide open if you know the material. Turning this idea on its head, on random days he would open the floor to questions about anything as long as it could be tied back to physics e.g. the principles at play in kite surfing. A bit more risky but some fantastic discussions arose from this method.


Another example was an inherited, one-off class in basic algebra for kids who were less than enthused by the subject matter. Well in advance of agile with a capital A, he made a plan to show results at short intervals. Every 2 weeks, he had them solve a problem with learnings from their previous work. Buy-in.

I’ll leave it to you to relate these examples to your own professional experience. ‘Connects to the outside world’ is particularly interesting and largely absent from the leadership & transformation discussion in my experience. It’s spotlighted in recent research about highly-rated leaders from Zenger Folkman and was shared out in Forbes (quick read) a few days ago.

Buy-in is an oft-cited holy grail of digital transformation but gets mentioned without any indication of how to achieve it. Connection to people’s lives and showing results are great way to consider. My father was getting buy-in from sometimes distracted, sometimes disinterested teenagers studying complex subjects. It’s not that much different in the context of business.

True Story by Thomas Irre