The story is told of two axmen who held a contest to determine who could cut down more trees in a day. At sunrise the contest commenced. Every hour the smaller man wandered off into the forest for 10 minutes or so. Each time he did this, his opponent smiled and nodded, assured that he was forging ahead. The larger man never left his post, never stopped cutting, never took a break.

When the day ended, the larger man was shocked to learn that his opponent, who seemingly wasted so much time, had cut many more trees than he. “How did you do it when you took so many breaks?” he asked.

The winner replied, “Oh, I was sharpening my ax.”

Stephen Covey coined the phrase “sharpen your saw.” In this habit of highly effective people he indicated that this is an activity requiring effort to improve yourself periodically.

In my own effort to “sharpen my ax” I recently listened to a Farnam Street podcast episode featuring researcher and author Jennifer Garvey Berger wherein she talks about three effective traits of good leaders.

  1. Ask Questions
  2. Consider Other Perspectives
  3. See in Systems

I tend to use acronyms or mnemonics to remember key concepts. So, after hearing this podcast episode I am certainly trying to “sharpen my ACS” regarding leadership skills.

One, leaders who assume their ideas are flawed ask lots of questions to get to the truth or heart of the matter.

Two, leaders who recognize they don’t know everything consider other employee perspectives regarding a variety of topics.

Three, leaders who recognize their impact look for the ways in which their ideas, initiatives, and actions influence other parts of the organizational system in which they work. This is a fundamental skill that doesn’t come naturally to most. Let me illustrate by how reintroducing wolves into the Yellowstone ecosystem affected more than just deer populations. See 5-minute video here.

In the end, if we can remember to keep our ACS sharpened, we are well on our way to becoming a great leader.


Published by Jerrod Guddat

I love learning, collaboration, and improving workplace performance. You can usually find me reading a book or opposing points of view on the internet. I typically assume my ideas are flawed until proven otherwise. :-)

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s