Sharpen your axe

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.” — Socrates

A few years ago, while at Lawas in Sarawak, I was told this story of a very strong and skilled Kayan woodcutter who asked for a job with a timber merchant.

He got the job with a good salary and decent work conditions. And so, the woodcutter was determined to do his best for the boss. His boss gave him an axe and on his first day, the woodcutter cut down 15 trees. The boss was pleased and said: “Well done, good work!”

Highly motivated, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but could only fell 13 trees. The third day, he tried even harder, but only 11 trees were chopped down.

Day after day, he tried harder but he cut down fewer trees. “I must be losing my strength,” the Kayan woodcutter thought. He apologised to the boss, claiming he could not understand why.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked. “Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been too busy cutting down trees,” said the woodcutter.

He sharpened his axe and immediately was back to 15 trees a day. Since then, he begins the day by sharpening his axe.

Most leaders are too busy doing and trying to achieve, that they never take time to learn and grow. Most of us don’t have the time or patience to update skills, knowledge, and beliefs about an industry, or to take time to think and reflect. Many assume that learning ends at school and so sharpening our axe is not a priority.

So, what exactly is sharpening the axe? Dr Steven Covey, who popularised the term, believes it means “increasing your personal production capacity by daily self care and self-maintenance.”

Most people fail to understand what it means and mistake it for taking a break or vacation. If you’re overworking yourself and your productivity drops off, take a break.

However, that isn’t sharpening the axe; that’s putting the axe down. When you put down a dull blade and rest, the blade will still be dull when you pick it up.

The woodcutter does need downtime to rest, but it is not “sharpening the axe.” The woodcutter only becomes more productive by sharpening his blade, analysing new woodcutting techniques, exercising to become stronger, and learning from other woodcutters.

Sharpening the axe is an activity. You too can sharpen the axe of your life. Here are 10 ways:

● Read a book every day;

● Get out of your comfort zone by changing jobs. A new job forces you to learn;

● Have a deep conversation with someone you find interesting. Sharpen your axe through that interaction;

● Pick up a new hobby. Stretch yourself physically, mentally or emotionally;

● Study something new;

● Overcome a specific fear you have or quit a bad habit;

● Have a daily exercise routine or take part in some competition;

● Identify your blind spots. Understand, acknowledge, and address it;

● Ask for feedback and get a mentor; and

● Learn from people who inspire you. Subscribe to YouTube/leaderonomicsmedia and watch interviews of great leaders.

You have to do it as often as possible. But if you’re so focused on your task at hand with no time for discussion, introspection, or study, you’re not really moving forward. Just as a car needs to be refuelled to keep going, we too need refuelling through learning.

The Management Mythbuster author David Axson believes most organisations still rely on outdated management strategies. Unless we are sharpening our axe daily by observing the changing world and changing ourselves accordingly, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Andrew Grove reinvented Intel and oversaw a 4,500 times increase in market capitalisation by his daily habitual “axe-sharpening” ritual of understanding global changes and taking advantage of these to ensure Intel remained relevant.

Employees at Japanese organisations like Toyota believe it’s a crisis if they do not create improvement each day. The “Kaizen mindset” means that every day, whether you’re a line worker or executive, you find ways to learn something new and apply it to what you’re doing. This forces employees to be alert, mindful and constantly improving.

Great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs have a continuous appetite for learning and growth. They always listen and watch in the hope of learning new ideas and discovering new truths and realities.

Many of us do just the opposite. By staying in the same job for many years, although we become experts and our roles become easy, our learning flattens.

We don’t like changing jobs as there is pain and struggle in taking on new roles. But the more we struggle, the more we learn.

When a new boss with new expectations takes over, we sometimes find ourselves struggling even though we have been in the same role for years. We try harder but still fail to impress. Why does this happen?

Much like the woodcutter, trying harder will not yield results. This is because we did not upgrade ourselves nor grow in the “easy” years. Our years of experience count for nothing as we did not keep up with the world around us and were ignorant and mindless of things that were evolving daily around us.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Harvard Prof Ellen Langer, who reminded me of our natural inclination to be mindless. Mindlessness is our human tendency to operate on autopilot, whether by stereotyping, performing mechanically or simply not paying attention.

We are all victims of being mindless at times. By sharpening our axe, we move from a mindless state to a mindful state; from “blindly going with the flow” to thinking and “breaking boundaries.”

Why then do so many people fail to sharpen their axe? Well, axe sharpening isn’t as fun as whacking away at the tree. And it is painful and tedious work.       

Religious leader David O. McKay once said: “The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.”

Sharpening the axe is a daily inner battle. Research reveals that self-educated presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln sharpened their axe daily by cultivating the discipline of reading.

In a number of Asian organisations, when there is a crisis or financial situation, the first thing that gets slashed is training programmes for employees. Yet, in a crisis, there is a greater need for employees to have sharpened axes to deal with issues.

Crises often helps companies to become great because they finally take time to sharpen their axe by re-looking at their current strategies and reinventing their industries, sometimes through painful reforms.

Before the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the Korean auto industry were jaguh kampung and known for low-quality cars with strong domestic car sales.

The crisis forced them to take a step back, sharpen their axe, become mindful to the world and move to sell the majority of their cars outside South Korea.

Of course, too much or aimless axe sharpening can become another form of procrastination. Many like to attend training courses and classes but end up never using the axe. After sharpening the axe, use it or all is in vain.

How are your various blades doing? Your skills, your knowledge, your mind, your physical body, your relationships, your motivation, your commitment to succeed, your capacity for growth, your emotions – are all of them still sharp? If not, which ones are dull, and what can you do to sharpen them?

Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening my axe.” What are you doing to sharpen your axe? Take a step back this weekend and start sharpening your axe.

■ Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation through leadership development. Sign your kids up for the leadership camps in June at, or call 016 6559017. You can also listen to Leaderonomics leaders every Monday at 11am on BFM89.9 or download podcasts at

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