Sharpen Your Ax

 Continuous Growth is Essential for One’s Leadership Success

Sharpen Your Ax

by Kent Hutchison

Many years ago, in Deep East Texas there was a very strong and skilled lumberjack who was looking for a job with a small timber company. He got the job with a fair salary and safe work conditions. And so, the lumberjack was determined to do his best for the boss. His boss gave him an ax and on his first day, the lumberjack chopped down 18 trees. The timber boss was pleased and said, “Well done, good work!”

Highly motivated, the lumberjack worked harder the next day, but he only could bring down 14 trees. The third day, he worked even harder, but he was just able to bring down eight trees. Day after day, he worked harder but cut down a smaller number of trees. The lumberjack thought, “I must be losing my strength.” He apologized to the timber boss, claiming he could not understand why.

“When was the last time you sharpened your ax?” the timber boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my ax. I have been too busy cutting down trees.”

The timber boss explained that the lumberjack needed to sharpen his tools on a regular basis.  Continuous improvement is the key.  Well, the lumberjack sharpened his ax and immediately was back to felling 18 trees a day. And since that conversation, he begins each day by sharpening his ax.

Too often we all are too busy doing and trying to achieve that we never take time to learn and grow. Most of us do not plan and set aside time, or we lack the patience to update skills, knowledge, and beliefs about an industry, or to take time to think and reflect. Many incorrectly assume that learning ends at school and so sharpening our ax is not a priority.

So, what exactly is sharpening the ax? Dr. Stephen Covey, who popularized the term “sharpening the saw,” believes that it means “increasing your production capacity by daily self-care and self-maintenance.”

Most fail to understand what it means and mistake it for taking a break or vacation. If we  overwork ourselves and our productivity drops, we take a break. However, that is not sharpening the ax – that is putting the ax down. When we put down an ax with a dull blade and rest, the blade will still be dull when we pick it back up.

The lumberjack does need downtime to rest, but downtime is not “sharpening the ax.” The lumberjack only becomes more productive by sharpening his blade, analyzing new woodcutting techniques, exercising to become stronger, and learning from other lumberjacks.

Sharpening your ax

 Sharpening the ax is an activity. You too can sharpen the ax of your life. Here are ten examples of ax-sharpening activities:

  1. Read every day. We all must set aside time every day for reading.  Read a book, an industry blog, or any of the millions of articles related to your job or industry.  It was Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, who once said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
  2. Get out of the comfort zone by changing jobs. A new job forces you to learn new skills.
  3. Have an in-depth conversation with someone you find interesting. Sharpen your ax through that interaction with mentors, friends, colleagues, or like-minded leaders.
  4. Start a new hobby. Stretch yourself physically, mentally or emotionally.
  5. Study something new. Challenge yourself to learn.
  6. Quit a bad habit or overcome a specific fear you have. The key is change.
  7. Have a daily exercise routine. We all benefit from additional physical movement and activity.
  8. Identify your blind spots. Self-assessment is critical to keeping your ax sharp. Understand, acknowledge, and address deficiencies.
  9. Ask for feedback and get a mentor. Every world-class professional athlete has a coach. Professional Golfer Patrick Reed, notable for his victories in the 2018 Masters Tournament, and representing the United States in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competitions – has a golf coach.  The world’s best American soccer players – Hope Solo and Alex Morgan; along with LeBron James and Stephen Curry – legendary professional basketball players, each have a coach.  Asking for feedback from a mentor is similar to having a personal coach.
  10. Learn from people who inspire you. There are hundreds of splendid TEDtalks and other videos on Youtube, as well as thousands of leadership podcasts with world-renowned thought leaders.  Spend some each week learning from people who inspire you.

The key is continuous improvement. If we are so focused on our task at hand with no time for discussion, introspection, or study, we are not moving forward. Just as a vehicle must be refueled to keep it going down the intrastate highway, we equally need refueling through learning.

Most organizations still rely on outdated management strategies that are irrelevant today. Unless we are sharpening our ax daily by observing the changing world and changing ourselves accordingly, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Andrew Grove reinvented Intel and oversaw an increase in market capitalization with his daily routine “ax-sharpening” ritual of studying global market changes and taking actions to ensure Intel remained relevant. Employees at organizations like Toyota believe it is a catastrophe if they do not create improvement every day. The “kaizen mindset” means whether we are a line worker or executive, we find ways to learn something new and apply it to what our daily lives. This regular organizational ritual of “sharpening the ax” forces us to be alert, mindful and continuous improvement.

Historical great leaders, like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and Steve Jobs had an endless appetite for learning and growth. Today great leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Simon Sinek, Malala Yousafzai, and Jeff Bezos continue demonstrating the need for lifelong learning and the need to sharpen the ax daily.  Leaders always listen and watch in the optimism of learning new ideas and discovering new truths and realities.

People hate change

Interestingly, many do just the opposite and fight change. By staying in the same job position for many years we become experts, and the role becomes easy, but our learning flattens. Most folks do not like taking on new roles as there are pains and struggles involved. But, the more one struggles, the higher the learning opportunity.

But when a new boss with new expectations takes over, we sometimes find ourselves struggling even though we have been at the same role for years. We try harder but still fail to impress. Why does this happen?

Similar to the lumberjack’s experience, trying harder along will not yield more significant results. This is because we did not upgrade ourselves nor grow in the “easy” years. One’s years of experience count for nothing if we do not keep up with the world around us and are ignorant and mindless of things that are evolving daily around us.

A whitepaper from a Harvard professor reminded me of our natural disposition to be mindless.

Mindlessness is our human tendency to operate on autopilot, whether by stereotyping, performing mechanically or simply not paying attention. We are all victims of being mindless at times. By sharpening the ax, one can move from a mindless state to a mindful state, from “blindly going with the flow” to thinking and “breaking boundaries.”

Why then do so many people fail to sharpen their ax? Well, ax sharpening is not as fun as chopping away at the trees. And it is painful and tedious work. The most significant battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul. Sharpening our ax is a daily internal battle. Research reveals that self-educated presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln sharpened their ax daily by cultivating the discipline of reading.

In most organizations, when there is a crisis or financial situation, the first thing that gets slashed is training programs for employees. But, in a crisis, there is a greater need for employees to have sharpened axes to deal with issues.

Crises often cause companies to become great because they finally take time to “sharpen their ax” by examining their current strategies and reinventing themselves, sometimes through painful reforms.

The South Korean auto industry before the 1998 Asian financial crisis was known for low-quality vehicles with strong domestic car sales. The crisis forced it to take a step back, sharpen its ax, become mindful to the world and move to sell most of its vehicles outside South Korea.  The United States automotive giant, General Motors, has seen a steady increase in its stock value throughout 2018 as it sharpens the ax by investing in retooling and investing in technology.

Of course, too much ax or aimless sharpening can become another form of procrastination. Many folks like to attend training conferences, classes, and programs but never end up using the ax. After sharpening the ax, use it, or all is in vain.

How are your various blades doing? Your skills, knowledge, mind, physical body, relationships, motivation, commitment to succeed, capacity for growth, emotions – are all of them still sharp? If not, which ones are dull, and what can you do to sharpen them?

A woodsman was once asked if you were given five minutes to chop down a tree how would you spend your time.  The woodsman replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my ax.”  The key is continuous improvement.

What are you doing to sharpen your ax? Take a step back to assess yourself and begin sharpening your ax.