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Give A Man A Fish, Feed Him For A Day. Teach A Man To Fish, Feed Him For A Lifetime - Lao Tzu 101

Aug 17, 2007
Lao Tzu was the founder of taoism, the mystical 'way' or 'path' that many have followed since. From way back between the 4th and 6th century BC, his amazing words echo down the centuries.

As well as many more wise sayings for which he is so well renowned.

One of the best known is the one quoted above, "Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime", which has a wonderful analogy with the modern world of management today.

The metaphor of feeding someone and that sufficing to get them through one day, and one day alone shows that people can only be helped so far. If we help them and do things for them all the time, then they rely on us, which is not only unhealthy for their development of skills, but also potentially dangerous, if we are not there to help them one day, their very future is at risk.

The principle whereby we rely totally on the support, guidance and even nurturing of someone else, for too long a period, is typical of many modern management environments. The old-style 'command and control' management processes lead to employees only being required or even able to do what they were told, which puts great pressure on those doing the telling.

Not only that, but where employees are not provided with stimulating work and aren't asked to challenge themselves mentally, this often leads to demotivation and then higher absence rates, as well as employee turnover that such boredom precipitates.

Lack of stimulation=boredom=frustration=leave to find something else.

Let's look at the flip side, where we 'teach a man to fish'. Not only does the man become self-sufficient and be able to survive without being provided for, but he has a sense of achievement and fulfillment. How good does an angler feel as he pulls a fish from the water?

Much better than when one is placed generously in front of him, merely to eat. Sure it may be good, for a while, to be provided for, but human psyche is bigger than that in a healthy human being. People need to be valued for who they are.

So - we 'teach them to fish'. In the workplace, by teaching out people new skills, we validate them for who they are and the contribution they are able to make. They know they are useful and valued and with this confidence they do more. They learn that to stretch themselves is good. That they have within themselves untapped resources which show off the potential they have always had, now released.

Indeed 'teaching them to fish' realizes not just the material potential they have, but catalyses even bigger capabilities in them. Their development muscle has been stretched and exercised, so it becomes bigger and more capable.

The business upside for 'teaching our people to fish'? Well, managers are able to offload some of their tactical workload to others who relish the opportunity. This frees managers to do more with more of their people.

A workplace environment that becomes the breeding ground for capable, committed and excited employees, straining at the leash to do more. Managers enable their business to become a developmental mixing bowl of ideas and capability like nothing before.

In a business world where the embodiment of excellent management is an operation that works at least as well (and sometimes better!), when the manager is absent is to be acknowledged as the purest quality.

And with that level of capability developed, all because the manager taught his people 'how to fish', business thrives.

In the hurried excitement of the crazy business world of today, how Lao Tzu would be impressed at the relevance of his ancient words.
About the Author
(c) 2007 Martin Haworth is a Business and Management Coach, trainer and writer. He works worldwide, mainly by phone, with small business owners, managers and corporate leaders. He has hundreds of hints, tips and ideas at his website, www.coaching-businesses-to-success.com.
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