Sharpen the Axe


My pastor, Denny Miller (, shared an interesting message yesterday. He got me thinking of how we as leaders manage people, projects, and processes.

Abraham Lincoln said that if he was given 6 hours to cut down a tree, he would spend the first 4 hours sharpening the axe. As Denny shared, there is great wisdom in Lincoln’s insight, isn’t there? But how does that apply us – business leaders and managers of people?

I’m sure there have been times when you’ve been assigned a new project or have come up with a new initiative. You are excited to dive in and show what kind of results you will get from this. You assemble your team, tell them where this project/initiative is heading, and you launch. You get the project done. Your team learns a little. You show results…but maybe they’re not the results you (or your boss) was hoping for. Why?

Did you sharpen your axe first?

Using Lincoln’s illustration, the tree represents your goals/results. You need to chop down that tree. You can see it. You’ve got the right tool. You are motivated. But if you don’t sharpen that axe, your results could be lacking: not done on time, project costs elevate, team gets discouraged.

So how do you sharpen your “axe” to ensure that you hit your results?

1. Know Your Team. Most teams have some outstanding folks. Then there are some who are along for the ride. And then there are many in the middle who can lean one way or the other. Sharpening your team is to prepare your team.

* Do they have the right skills to hit the results you are expected to hit?
* Are they motivated to succeed or are they “flat”?
* Have you communicated enough about where this project/initiative is heading? Do they know the road map?
* Have you challenged ALL of your team? Or will you just dump 80% of the work on the 20% who always end up with the load?

Your team and their efforts are the edge that will make all the difference in the cutting down of your tree.

2. Know Your Goal. Aligning your team’s efforts with your company’s truly important goals is critical in your team’s success. You, as the team leader, must communicate what those goals are. You must “connect the dots” from your team’s daily work to these goals. There is purpose in their work! Help them find it, understand it, and live it!

You may think you have sharpened the axe, but if you cut the wrong tree down, you did not win. Cut the right tree down.

3. Know Your Progress. Most projects/initiatives are not completed in a day. It can takes weeks or even months. It is your responsibility as a leader to let your team know how things are going.

* Are new skills required mid-stream? Then train and develop your team.
* Does your team know if they’re half way through the “tree” or close to the end? Keep a “scoreboard” or dashboard updating results along the way to the goal.
* Does your team know if their work is resulting in success or do they feel it’s just busy work? Keep connecting purpose back to their work.
* Have you been encouraging little successes, coaching to strengthen weaknesses, and counseling to get some of the team back on the right track? If you don’t do this, who will? You are the leader.

This step is very important in the process of hitting your goals. It requires communication. It requires further “sharpening” if motivation gets dull. It requires momentum. It requires your personal involvement as the leader.

4. Finish Strong. When you put in the work, keep your axe sharpened, encouraging your team along the way, celebrate when the work is done and the results are achieved (or exceeded!). Show your team where they grew (they may not specifically know – point out individual accomplishments and growth steps).

5. Prepare for the Future. The axe will be pulled out again. Keep your team focused and honed, ready for the next challenge.

Cutting down a tree is hard work. Having a sharpened axe makes all the difference. Having a developed, motivated, capable team will also make a huge difference as you tackle and succeed in reaching your goals.

Sharpen the axe!

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