The Best Leaders Take Time to Sharpen Their Blades

Team dynamics we don’t usually talk about, Part 3

I used to diligently mow my lawn, taking great pleasure in how neat and tidy it looked—and, truth be told, feeding my ego with the thought that I had one of the nicest front lawns in the neighborhood.

But one day I noticed that my lawn tended to brown up nicely right afterward; the ragged tips of the blades of grass just didn’t look healthy. Still, I kept mowing.

People do not auto-sharpen—to be sharp we must intentionally do something to sharpen ourselves.
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Eventually, the engine needed service, so I took my mower to the repair shop for a tune up. The repairman hoisted the mower onto a work bench, tilted it back and took a look at its underside. He then turned to me and asked, “When was the last time you sharpened the blades?”

I hate looking or sounding stupid, even when I am. I “knew” that lawn mower blades needed to be sharpened from time to time; I just had never bothered to do so. I had failed to recognize that blades were no longer cutting properly because they were dull—they were bludgeoning the grass, not cutting it. The proof was in the ragged brown tips.

Great leaders don’t auto-sharpen

Author Stephen Covey introduced me to the life principle of “sharpening the saw” in his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He uses this metaphor to illustrate the need for people to continually renew themselves in mind, body, soul and spirit in order to be effective in their lives.

As a result, in my role as director of church health for EFCA West, I routinely ask church leadership teams whether they do anything together to increase their knowledge, effectiveness, spiritual depth or leadership capacity. Almost without exception, the answer is no.

People do not auto-sharpen—to be sharp we must intentionally do something to sharpen ourselves. We don’t stay sharp through continuous work; we stay sharp by intentionally pausing from our tasks to sharpen the saw.

Why, then, do so many of us behave as if we are “auto-sharpening”? I believe that we simply get too busy to attend to our sharpness; other “urgent” demands distract us from pursuing intentional growth, so we put it off until later. And “later” is always, well, later.

Let me suggest some questions to help jump start your team’s conversation about sharpening the saw:

  • In the past year, what have we done to grow individually and collectively as Christ-followers and church leaders?
  • When was the last time we met together to grow rather than to conduct business? How frequently do we do so?
  • Do we ever talk among ourselves about our personal growth (mental, physical, emotional and spiritual)? Are we healthy mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually?
  • What have I done individually this past year to grow as a whole person (more than as a leader)? What has been its impact?

And here are some specific ideas for moving forward:

  • Brainstorm as a group some areas where you’d like to develop together—anything from specific leadership skills or theological depth, to soul nurture. Select two of these to work on for the next six months, perhaps by discussing a book that everyone reads.
  • Tap into the EFCA Theology Podcast (on the web and in most podcast apps). These presentations can be used for personal or team theological growth and maturity.
  • Schedule a separate meeting, perhaps quarterly, to focus only on important items and not be derailed by the urgent. After all, trying to build team relationships, focus in prayer and grow together cannot be done effectively by merely adding these items to an already full agenda.

It has often been said that “what got you here won’t keep you here.” I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect, at least as it pertains to leading and caring for God’s flock, that what got you here will keep you here, and that’s the problem: If we don’t keep growing, and if we don’t continually work to sharpen ourselves, we will stay where we are. That’s called stuck.

Let’s not keep doing the same thing with ever-more-dull blades; rather, let’s commit to sharpening our saws together.

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