Lao Tzu – “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”
In ancient Chinese times, sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE, Lao Tzu was the founder of Taoism, the mystical “way” or “path” that many have followed ever since.
And with it came the many sayings for which he is known.
One of the most famous is the one quoted above “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach man to fish; feed him for life’ which has a wonderful analogy with the modern world of management today.
The metaphor of feeding someone and that being enough to get them through one day and one day only shows that people can only be helped so far. If we’re helping them and doing things for them all the time, then they’re relying on us, which is not only unhealthy for their skill development, but potentially dangerous, if we’re not there to help them one day, their very future is in danger.
The principle of relying entirely on someone else’s support, guidance, and even care for too long is typical of many modern management environments. Old-style “command and control” management processes result in employees being required or even only able to do what they are told, which puts a lot of pressure on those who say.
Not only that, but when employees aren’t provided with stimulating work and aren’t asked to challenge themselves mentally, it often leads to demotivation and then higher absenteeism rates, as well as employee turnover, which such boredom precipitates.
Lack of stimulus=boredom=disappointment=leave to find something else.
Let’s look at the flip side where we “teach a man to fish”. Not only does man become self-sufficient and can survive without being provided for, but he has a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. How good does an angler feel pulling a fish out of the water?
Much better than having someone generously placed in front of him just to eat. Sure, it might be good to be provided for a while, but the human psyche is bigger than that of a healthy human being. People should be valued for who they are.
So – we “teach them to fish”. In the workplace, by teaching people new skills, we affirm them for who they are and the contribution they can make. They know they are useful and valued, and with that confidence they do more. They learn that stretching is good. That they have untapped resources within them that show the potential they always had, now released.
Indeed, “teaching them to fish” realizes not only the material potential they have, but catalyzes even greater abilities within them. Their developmental muscle is stretched and exercised so it becomes bigger and more capable.
The business advantage of “teaching our people to fish”? Well, managers are able to offload some of their tactical work to others who relish the opportunity. This frees up managers to do more with more people.
A work environment that becomes a nurturing environment for capable, dedicated and excited employees, straining to do more. Managers enable their business to become a mixing bowl for developing ideas and capabilities like nothing before.
In a business world where the epitome of excellent management is an operation that works at least as well (and sometimes better!) when the manager is absent, it should be recognized as the purest quality.
And with this level of ability developed, all because the manager taught his people “how to fish,” business boomed.
How Lao Tzu would smile if he saw how important his little saying is in the chaos of the business world today, as it was all those years ago!
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