Sharpen Your Leadership Edge

My Dad loves knives, and the gift of a knife is always a good choice for him. Two things I’ve learned about knives: 1. the importance of keeping the blade sharp; and 2. you sharpen a knife blade in small increments. If you have ever sharpened a knife you know that the process is not quick, but rather the outcome of slowly removing small nicks on the blade to get back to a sharp edge. The same is true for leadership – it’s critical to keep your leadership edge sharp and the sharpening happens in small increments. It’s also vital to keep your leadership edge sharp so that you can engage in the thin slicing that’s required to stretch and grow as a leader.

What Are Your Leadership Edges?

When you think about edges, what comes to mind? Certainly, the edge of a knife blade is one which requires constant attention to remain sharp. Another (and less obvious) is the outside edge of your comfort zone or the edge of your current learning and leadership. When you grow as a leader, you identify the growth area and move towards the goal (the edge). However, as you approach or reach this edge (goal), the next step is to push past and seek out the new growth edge. Hopefully, you are tracking with me and you can visualize the idea that continuous growth and improvement involves a continuing process of stretching to a new edge. Once each edge is achieved, then you move past it in pursuit of the new level or edge.

Recently, I asked my many coaching clients what their leadership edges are for 2019, and most of them did not understand my question. Once I explained it (as above), they typically responded, “That’s a good question.” Indeed, a good question for all of us. So, I ask you, “What are your leadership edges for the new year?” In what ways do you want to grow and improve? In what ways to you want to sharpen your leadership? In what ways do you want to lead differently in 2019 and beyond?

If you do not know your desired leadership edges, it’s unlikely that you will be able to sharpen them. And in order to effectively sharpen them, you must not only be clear and intentional about your edges, but you must thin slice them (which requires a sharp edge of awareness and clarity).

Thin Slicing Your Leadership Edges

I first encountered the concept of thin slicing in Malcolm Gladwell’s fabulous book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). Gladwell describes thin slicing as our unconscious ability to use limited information and experience to come to a conclusion. While this concept is fascinating and worth exploring further, my concept of thin slicing is more literal – the idea of and need to thin slice anything that we want to change or improve. As I tell my clients, if you cannot thin slice it then you cannot change it (because change always happens in thin slices).

For example, if you want to improve your communication or become a better communicator, you will fail because you have not thin sliced the issue or challenge. In other words, thin slicing is the process of assessing and determining precisely what you want to change or improve. Here are some examples of ways to thin slice a desire to improve your communication.

  • Better listener
  • Better questioner
  • More present
  • More empathy
  • Less emotionally energized communication
  • More awareness of unconscious use (or misuse) of power
  • More direct
  • More clear

You get the idea, and you can thin slice within any of the above referenced thinner slices of communication. The best and most effective way to improve and grow in any area is to thin slice it and then determine in what ways to sharpen that thin sliced growth edge.

Sharpen, Slice and Sharpen

Abraham Lincoln is credited as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Unfortunately, it turns out that Lincoln never actually said this, but the wisdom is real. The same is true for change, growth and improvement – if you want to grow you must sharpen your leadership edges and thereby sharpen the blade. Once sharpened, you can use your sharpened edges and awareness to thin slice the issues and develop very sharp edges for your growth efforts. Once you have thin sliced the edges so that you are (and everyone around is) clear on what edges you are seeking to sharpen, then you work towards sharpening again.

Leadership growth is an unending process of sharpen, slice and then sharpen (stretch and grow) again. If you are wondering when this process ends, the answer is never … at least not if you are committed to continuous growth and improvement in your leadership, your influence and your impact.

Are you ready to sharpen? Are you committed to thin slice? Are you willing to be clear and accountable so that you can sharpen, grow and stretch your leadership edges? Just know that in order to live this leadership journey of sharpening, slicing and sharpening, you must be willing to be honest with yourself and vulnerable with others.

Vulnerability is the sharpening stone that’s required if you want to be a leader of influence and impact. If you are ready to sharpen your leadership edges, first commit to being open and vulnerable as a leader. Your organization, team, community and family are all waiting for your sharpened leadership, and it’s time to sharpen your edges!

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