Sharpen Your Axe: Daily Personal Growth Critical For Leadership Success

By Roshan Thiran|02-04-2013 | 7 Min Read
Reading a book can sharpen your axe and help you to leadership success.

Roshan Thiran

A few years ago while in Lawas, Sarawak, I was told this story of a very strong and skilled Kayan woodcutter who asked for a job with a timber merchant. He got the job with a good salary and decent work conditions. And so, the woodcutter was determined to do his best for the boss. His boss gave him an axe and on his first day, the woodcutter chopped down 15 trees. The boss was pleased and said, “Well done, good work!”

Highly motivated, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he only could bring down 13 trees. The third day, he tried even harder, but he was only able to bring down 11 trees. Day after day, he tried harder but cut down a smaller number of trees. “I must be losing my strength,” the Kayan man thought. He apologised to the boss, claiming he could not understand why.

Many assume that learning ends at school and so to sharpen your axe is not a priority.

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

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

He sharpened his axe and immediately was back to felling 15 trees a day. And since that conversation, he begins the day by sharpening his axe.

Close enough :)

Most leaders are too busy doing and trying to achieve that they never take time to learn and grow. Most of us don’t have the time or patience to update skills, knowledge, and beliefs about an industry, or to take time to think and reflect. Many assume that learning ends at school and so to sharpen your axe is not a priority.

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

Most people fail to understand what it means and mistake it for taking a break or vacation. If you’re overworking yourself and your productivity drops, take a break. However, that isn’t sharpening the axe – that’s putting the axe down. When you put down a dull blade and rest, the blade will still be dull when you pick it up.

The woodcutter does need downtime to rest, but that doesn't sharpen your axe. The woodcutter only becomes more productive by sharpening his blade, analysing new woodcutting techniques, exercising to become stronger, and learning from other woodcutters.

Sharpening your axe

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

  1. Read a book every day.
  2. Get out of your comfort zone by changing jobs. A new job forces you to learn.
  3. Have a deep conversation with someone you find interesting. Sharpen your axe through that interaction.
  4. Pick up a new hobby. Stretch yourself physically, mentally or emotionally.
  5. Study something new.
  6. Overcome a specific fear you have or quit a bad habit.
  7. Have a daily exercise routine or take part in some competition.
  8. Identify your blind spots. Understand, acknowledge, and address them.
  9. Ask for feedback and get a mentor.
  10. Learn from people who inspire you. Subscribe to Leaderonomics Media and watch interviews of great leaders.

You have to do it as often as possible. But if you’re so focused on your task at hand with no time for discussion, introspection, or study, you’re not really moving forward. Just as a car needs to be refuelled with petrol to keep it going, we likewise need refuelling through learning.

The Management Mythbuster author David Axson believes most organisations still rely on outdated management strategies that are irrelevant today. Unless we are sharpening our axe daily by observing the changing world and changing ourselves accordingly, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Andrew Grove reinvented Intel and oversaw a 4,500-time increase in market capitalisation by his daily habitual 'axe-sharpening' ritual of understanding global changes and taking advantage of it to ensure Intel remained relevant. Employees at Japanese organisations like Toyota believe it’s a crisis if they do not create improvement each day.

The 'kaizen mindset' means that every day, whether you are a line worker or executive, you find ways to learn something new and apply it to what you are doing. This daily organisational ritual of 'sharpening the axe' forces employees to be alert, mindful and constantly improving.

Great leaders, like GandhiNelson Mandela and Steve Jobs have a continuous appetite for learning and growth. They always listen and watch in the hope of learning new ideas and discovering new truths and realities.

We hate change

Interestingly, many of us do just the opposite. By staying in the same job for many years, although we become experts and the role becomes easy, our learning flattens. We don’t like changing jobs as there is pain and struggle involved in taking on new roles. But, the more we struggle, the more learning we glean.

Shoulda bought it when you had the chance, laddie.

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?

Much like the woodcutter, trying harder will not yield results. This is because we did not upgrade ourselves nor grow in the 'easy' years. Our years of experience count for nothing as we did not keep up with the world around us and were ignorant and mindless of things that were evolving daily around us. Two weeks ago, I interviewed Harvard professor Ellen Langer who reminded me of our natural inclination to be mindless.

Mindlessness is our human tendency to operate on auto pilot, whether by stereotyping, performing mechanically or simply not paying attention. We are all victims of being mindless at times. By sharpening our axe, we 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 axe? Well, axe sharpening isn’t as fun as whacking away at the trees. And it is painful and tedious work.

David McKay adds that:

The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.

Sharpening the axe is a daily inner internal battle. Research reveals that self-educated presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln sharpened their axe daily by cultivating the discipline of reading.

In a number of Asian organisations, when there is a crisis or financial situation, the first thing that gets slashed is training programmes for employees. Yet, 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 axe” by re-looking at their current strategies and reinventing their industries, sometimes through painful reforms. The South Korean auto industry before the 1998 Asian financial crisis was 'jaguh kampung' (local hero) and known for low quality cars with strong domestic car sales.

The crisis forced it to take a step back, sharpen its axe, become mindful to the world and move to sell the majority of its cars outside South Korea.

Of course, too much axe or aimless sharpening can become another form of procrastination. Many like to attend trainings and classes but never end up using the axe. After sharpening the axe, 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?

Lincoln once said:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening my axe

What are you doing to sharpen your axe? Take a step back this weekend and start sharpening your axe.
To watch the video from the Be a Leader series on Sharpening Your Axe, click below:

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Roshan is the Founder and CEO of the Leaderonomics Group. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe", in their own special ways. He is constantly featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at
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