Those Who CAN Do, Teach


Two years ago, I left the for-profit sector to teach business full-time at a university. Since making that shift, I’ve heard a certain cliché more times than I can remember: “those who can’t do, teach.”

This phrase puzzles me every time I hear it. I think that on some level, it’s puzzled society ever since George Bernard Shaw penned it in 1903. (Shaw’s actual quote was, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”)

The problem I have with this phrase is that it assumes that doing has more value than teaching—that those who can perform a certain action should always do so, and that teachers have failed to perform the action. Shaw’s apparent premise is that doing is more important than teaching.

I’m not sure that holds up to management research.

A working paper released last year from a team of researchers led by Stanford’s Edward Lazaer revealed that often those who teach enhance a team’s productivity more than those who do. The paper, titled “The Value of Bosses,” studied a technology-service firm over five years. At the firm, the productivity of each employee and team were measured on an hourly basis, making data collection and comparison possible at a large scale.

The researchers followed nearly 24,000 employees and almost 2,000 bosses, resulting in about six million measurements. The average team at the firm consisted of nine members and the average employee changed supervisors four times a year. This made it possible to compare the quality of managers based on their effect on the teams they rotated through.

The problem I have with this phrase is that it assumes that doing has more value than teaching.

When they tabulated the results, the research team found that adding a tenth member to an average team increased productivity by about 11 percent. However, replacing a low-quality manager with a high-quality one resulted in a productivity bump of 12 percent.

Replacing a bad boss with a good one had a greater effect than adding another team member. So what did the good managers do that bad managers didn’t?


In addition to supervising, good managers focused on developing their team members by teaching them more about company products and policies, as well as good work skills and habits. It was that teaching that increased the productivity of the whole team.

So what did the good managers do that bad managers didn’t?


The study’s results imply that sometimes adding another doer isn’t as productivity as adding a good teacher.

Perhaps those who can do, should teach more often.

David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.

  • David,

    Just because a famous person said something witty does not make it true, or worth repeating. I’ve always believed such is the case with Shaw’s quote about teachers. It’s a shame that it ever caught on.*

    I taught for nine years. I’ve been CEO of two companies and a nonprofit since then, but I consider myself a teacher still, as the best managers were in the study you quote. Of all the jobs I’ve had, and all the different titles, I’m most proud of the title Teacher. Helping others to become the best version possible of themselves – what is more noble (or more challenging!) than that?

    Besides just heaping scorn on anyone who’d say that about teachers, I like to turn it around: Do you think you can lead others? How good of a teacher are you? Individual contributors may just “do,” but as you point out so compellingly, real leaders teach, first and foremost.

    Those who can’t teach, do.

    *Now, regarding the source of this cheap and highly unfortunate quip: Shaw himself did not “do,” he wrote (plays, in his case). I’ve also heard this one, which I find even more scorn-worthy: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, write.” Witty, but just plain dumb. I wonder what Shaw would say about his own profession put on a rung even lower than that which he scorned so vehemently.

    Now, to give the guy some measure of a break, my guess is that most teachers weren’t al that talented at their craft when he was a boy, way back in the 19th Century. I certainly had more than my share of horrible, almost soul-quashing teachers as a boy in the 1970s. One of my girls had a mediocre teacher just a couple of years ago. Your teachers make all the difference.

    • Michael Murphy

      The phrase has some credos but its not always the case. Teachers differ from Instructors in that an Instructor uses a tell, show, and do approach. I am a Personal Trainer and PT instructor. I simply can not teach this skill without doing!!! As a SCUBA Divemaster in training, I have to perform SCUBA Skills perfectly before I get certified to teach. Teachers can get away with teaching doctrine from manuals and not actually implementing it. This is not to say that a teacher can not perform the task, only that teaching differs from instructing

  • David,

    My understanding of the Shaw quote is quite different than yours. To me, what he meant is that those persons who can do something effectively go out and do it while those who are unable to do that something and would always be unsuccessful at doing it become teachers at schools and universities to teach it to others.

    In the discipline of managing people, my experience is that the vast majority of those who teach it don’t really understand it or leadership at all and would not succeed at managing people. Of course, the vast majority of those who actually manage people don’t know how to do it effectively either as shown by the annual Gallup polls on engagement.

    As you point out, as a manager teaching or coaching subordinates is a most important and rewarding function. Helping your people to be better at what they do and to be a better person is one of the keys to effectively managing people.

  • Stew

    So, a team of researchers led by Stanford’s Edward Lazaer have conducted extensive research, analysed and studied the results, and concluded that:

    1. The addition of manpower to a task increases output in direct proportion to the percentage increase. (Not true in all cases)

    2. Teams that are mentored, coached and developed by their leaders perform better than those that are merely supervised.

    3. Better leaders mentor, coach and develop their teams.

    I don’t want to be hypercritical, but, aren’t points 2 and 3 pretty-much business axioms already?

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  • Nicole Burris

    I personally believe the reason the quote ends with “those who cannot, teaches,” is because they teach you how not to do it. I do not necessarily think it has to do with literally being a teacher, but instead being a lesson learned on how not to do it.

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