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the best leaders don’t bother teaching their team how to fish

February 19, 2014

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Proverb

A beach at duskRubbish! It might be the common wisdom but it is incredibly short-sighted. Teaching your team how to fish only delivers value while they can stand beside the river or piece of coastline that your presence gives them access to. What happens when you leave and the next leader can’t provide the same resource access or doesn’t understand the value of fishing? Or worse, doesn’t even know how to fish?

Your team starves. Unless of course they leave the organisation first.

If you are a leader and you are spending your time teaching your team how to fish then you are wasting your time and theirs.

If you want to join the ranks of the best leaders in the world today teach your team how to teach other people how they fish.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate…

It was a Friday. I was with a client on the morning of his last day with the organisation. It was a time for reflection on what had been achieved and whether he was leaving a legacy. Despite having built a highly productive, efficient and safe team; despite overcoming many of the  tensions that come from running a mixed office and field based team; despite having delivered an ambitious program of works that dealt with major organisational risks on time and on budget; despite all that he was melancholy.

His concern was not whether those who followed him would be able to build on the foundation he had established. He was worried that they would not even be able to maintain the team’s current level of performance.  And he is not alone. It is a common concern for many managers in today’s highly mobile employment environment. What happens after you move on to the next role? Was it worth expending all that time and energy building something if the next person in the chair is just going to tear it down in another departmental reorganisation?

He had invested a significant amount of his time and energy teaching his team how to fish. And he had done it well. The team were known in the organisation for their ability to fish well and to fish efficiently. They were the team that dropped by your desk in the morning and offered to help you with a problem they had heard you were having.  He had been an excellent leader and the team responded. But that didn’t guarantee a lasting legacy.

What he wasn’t able to do was to make it clear to them what it was that he as their leader was doing that allowed them to excel. He had taught them how to fish, but he hadn’t taught them how to teach others how they fish.

That is because many natural leaders are just that – natural. They do what they do and they do it well… but they are not able to put into words just what it is that they do. As a result, when they are promoted or head-hunted into their next role the team that they leave behind don’t know what it is that they need to ask for from their next leader. They don’t know how to identify what is missing and you end up with vague comments like “There was just something about her. She made it easy for me to do my job. This new guy they brought across from canning in a development move has no idea about fishing!

Can you as a leader make explicit to your team what it is they need to ask of you, what the work is that you need to do for them so that they can do their job?  If you can, you arm them with the capacity to see what the next leader is failing to provide for them. You open a space in which they are able to ask for what is missing. A space where they can teach their next leader not only how they fish, but the value of fishing and the sorts of access to resources they need to do their jobs and do it well.

If you can do that, then and only then do you feed them for a lifetime.

If you can do that you will leave a lasting legacy.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Fletcher, Randy S permalink
    February 21, 2014 7:33 am

    Hmmm. Not sure about this one, will be worth a chat…

    It has been too long my friend.



  1. breaking, bad is good | finding my own Way

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