Servant Leadership Workplace-Sharpen Axe

Servant-Leaders Sharpen the Axe

A lumberjack was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?”

The lumberjack answered, “I would spend the first two minutes to sharpen my axe.”

This expression, in various forms, is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Regardless of whether Lincoln ever said such words, it remains a nice metaphor to illustrate a key priority of servant leadership: the growth and development of others.

Think of chopping down the tree as an objective of your team, your department or your company.

Think of sharpening the axe as developing the people in your team, your department or your company.

To achieve the objective most efficiently and effectively (chopping down the tree in a limited period of time) isn’t it better to develop people as part of the process (sharpening the axe)?

When faced with an objective that is urgent and important, we’re often tempted to round up as many people as are available and charge full speed ahead.

But sometimes it might be a good idea to stop and assess whether those people could become more ready to do the job. It might be that a little sharpening – professional or team development, for example – at the beginning of the project might speed things up, not slow things down.

In my experience, servant-leaders sharpen the axe.

Servant-leaders care about achieving objectives, of course. But at the same time, they care about the growth and development of people.*

So, in a manner of speaking, like wise lumberjacks (or Abraham Lincoln, as the case may be), servant-leaders can see that growing people and getting great results go hand-in-hand.

What do you think? Does the metaphor work for you? Are there times investing in people does not advance the accomplishment of objectives?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


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In the workplace, a servant-leader has three priorities:

  • Developing people
  • Building a trusting team
  • Achieving results

Check out this post: “Servant Leadership – 3 Workplace Priorities”