Sharpening the saw

In his best selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of a man who was walking through a forest when he came across a frustrated lumberjack.

The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree and was swearing and cursing as he laboured in vain.

“What’s the problem?”  The man asked.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly” the lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing” said the lumberjack.

“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”

“But I don’t have time to stop!” The lumberjack retorted, getting more frustrated.

The man shook his head and kept on walking, leaving the lumberjack to his pointless frustration…

I love the way this story tells of how we can fall into the trap of continuing down a path of struggle, when stopping and ‘sharpening the saw’ would be the wiser and more effective approach.

Expressed as a metaphor, ‘sharpening our saw’ aptly portrays the benefits of taking time out to hone our skills, delegate work, or look after ourselves better, instead of doing the same thing over and over again (but getting nowhere in return).

The reason why this message is so powerful, is because it is delivered in the form of a story.

And when it comes to successful leadership, stories are one of the most potent communication tools we can harness.


Because they evoke an emotional response. We can visualise the situation, the setting, the people, and the words that are exchanged. We feel empathy for the people in the stories. We see ourselves in the characters. And as a result, the meaning is more likely to stick.

The art of storytelling has been practiced since the dawn of time.  People are genetically wired for stories. It is the most basic and effective way of passing on knowledge and information, beliefs and history.

Where can you use stories as a leader?

Here are just six examples of when stories can be immensely valuable:

1. As cautionary tales for rules and norms (OHS is a ripe breeding ground for stories).
2. To give meaning behind an aspect of culture or ritual.
3. To help manage change or tumultuous times in an organisation.
4. In helping to communicate a vision for the future.
5. To evoke emotional connection with the organisation through telling stories about  its roots or beginnings.
6. In telling people something about yourself as a leader, your struggles, lessons and challenges that you have overcome.

As a leader, stories help you to show authenticity and build credibility.

Think about the myths and stories in your organisation that you can tap into.

What can you share personally about your journey into leadership that could resonate with others in your team?

Are there stories from sport or myths you can borrow to make a point?

I would love to hear your stories of storytelling!