Everyone has heard the expression, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” or some variation of this. In fact, it’s been quoted, paraphrased, blogged, memed and parodied so many times, it hardly seems blog post worthy anymore. The phrase itself is a fairly novel concept. The real reward in life is learning to be self sufficient and to not be dependent on others. This is truly where happiness comes from. A new penny loses it’s shine eventually and is just a penny, but if you know how to make that one penny into many pennies, the reward is so much greater. Blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We all know this, right?
When I got started in IT leadership, I was so obsessed with making sure things were handled to my standard that I hoarded much of the work. I would tell myself that I was protecting my employees from having to deal with such things, but in actuality I was hindering their development. There was the occasional employee I felt so comfortable with that I would hand one particular project to them and let them own it, but for the most part I felt like I had to have my hands on everything that was going on. I felt if I didn’t do this, we would fail. I felt such ownership over every piece of software, hardware, process, or procedure that I couldn’t let it go.
I can still remember having several conversations with my boss about delegation. We talked on the subject often, and I understood that it was something I needed to get better at, but I sure didn’t know how. How do you own something, and be responsible for it’s success and yet let other people do it? This concept was hard to grasp. It was hard to grasp for him too, but we both vowed to get better at it.
I remember seeing a program about George Washington once, and on the program they talked about his leadership style. George would gather those whose opinions he valued, hear them out and make a call. I visualize them in a circle around some old 1700’s wood table made from a tree trunk, standing of course, in full dress for the period. I picture them with their wigs and hats. George would address the group with the issue, and then he would back off and let them all talk about it. He would observe and in the end I picture him clearing his throat to a silence of the crowd and just telling them how it is. George took the opinions and ideas and formulated his own idea and then that is what happened. That is my image of a good leader. The thing was, George had those around him that he trusted to provide value. How did he get to that point? Sure you could say it was because he served in the trenches with them. You could say it was because George always had the absolute best around him at all times. The truth probably is that George did his best to teach them all to fish. He made them better, so in the end he was better at his job.
To come full circle, I think we can learn something from George Washington. For us to be the absolute best version of ourselves, it is our responsibility to teach everyone around us to fish. In business, now, I think I do a much better job of this. I give everyone who works for me the permission to fail. In fact, I encourage it. I want them to try to solve problems on their own. I tell them that my door is always open to talk through what they are working on, but in the end, they are the ones working on it. I will not do it for them, even at the expense of the project or a deadline. In my early days, I had no problem sitting down at my employee’s workstation and running through the solution to whatever problem they were working on and not thinking twice about it. Each time I did this, I was setting them back days, weeks, or months in their development and maturation as a technology professional. To be the best leader I can be, it is up to me to make those around me the absolute best they can be. If I do this, in the end, we will all reap the rewards of learning to fish.