Sharpen your axe: A leadership lesson

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Take time to sharpen your axe.

I have been conducting research on the behavior of executive leadership for over a decade. Part of that study includes an annual survey to our clients’ top brass. Like clockwork, year after year, the answers to a couple questions have become predictable. To the question, “What do you want personally?,” almost every leader’s response has common threads:

  • Meaningful work
  • Personal health
  • Happy family

A similar question I ask is, “What do you want professionally?” The top three answers also tend to be nearly the same. With slight variance, they are:

  • Profit and growth
  • Efficiency and reduced costs
  • Leaving a legacy*

(*Quick disclaimer: not many leaders use the “legacy” word. They say things like “I want my business to last long after I’m gone” or “I want the company to have success for generations to come.”)

Unique takeaway: Almost all leaders acknowledge the importance of personal health. When I dug into the topic a little deeper, however, what I learned is that while they view personal health as a priority, most leaders admit they tend to put it on the back burner in practice. That is, until they are faced with a major health complication and their doctor mandates compliance. So I started thinking: Why do leaders believe personal health is a priority yet fail to make time for it?

This thought percolated while I was driving home from work late (as usual) with a long list of business to complete and looming deadlines to meet. To add to that, a typical, recurring laundry list of tasks around the house needed attention. Frenetic, to say the least, and I’ve not mentioned the kids.

The time and energy required for my wife and me to address the logistical maze of getting the kids to school and sports is significant. We’re talking about three kids going to three different schools (elementary, middle school, and high school), involved in softball, swimming, and cross country, respectively. Many of you can relate, I’m sure. So while in the car dealing with afternoon rush hour traffic, doing everything in my power to get to practice on time, and the weight of the world on my shoulders, I better understood how easy it is to put your own health as a tier two or three priority. Having neglected my fitness for months, I was at a crossroads.

I became inspired to get back into the gym. But how?

Do I prioritize the gym over my career obligations? Do I prioritize exercise over my kids and their activities? Do I neglect the long task list of items around the house so I can get in some weights and cardio?

Sharpen your axe!

The story goes something like this…

Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant. The pay was really good and so were the working conditions. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.

His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he would work.

The first day, the woodcutter felled 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”

Motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring down 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only manage 10 trees. Day after day, he finished with fewer trees.

“I must be losing my strength,” the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?,” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I’ve had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been so busy trying to cut trees….”

The metaphor to exercise is apparent. That night I dropped my daughter off at softball practice and went to the gym. It wasn’t an epic workout by any means. But it was a workout. I know for me to achieve the personal and professional goals, I must be physically sharp.

A fit me is a better father, husband, and leader…

… and a fit you is better in all the areas of your life, too.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Put time on your calendar to sharpen your axe. As a leader, you will be glad you stayed so sharp.

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