Leadership Lessons from Fly Fishing

It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.          ~John Steinbeck

Trout are a lot like people; both predictable and highly unpredictable.

The external environment impacts their behaviour and “moods” (in fishing language we call it “activity”). They have multiple patterns of behaviour throughout the day.  They respond to different stimuli at different times. They are sometimes gregarious and sometimes solitary.

And because of this multitude of differences in behaviour, catching a trout on a fly is not just a matter of throwing it in the lake or stream and making it wiggle! Because trout match the hatchare often selective feeders, those who take fly fishing seriously have come up with a unique term; Matching the Hatch.  What that means is that in order to increase the probability of catching a trout, the fly fisherman should study what the trout are currently feeding on, and then deliver a fly that closely matches the insect they are feeding on, even down to the colour and size.

light-hendrickson-mayfly-troutFor example, when a Mayfly hatch is on, trout become extremely selective and will only approach and take a fly that very closely matches the size, colour and even species of mayfly hatching at the time. Other flies are just totally ignored. And then when the hatch is over, even a deftly presented mayfly imitation can be summarily ignored.

So, the tactics that successful fly fishermen use to catch trout on a consistent basis is one of constant change and adjustment to a multitude of elements, like size, depth at which fly is presented in the water, colour, materials, hook size, various forms of insects imitations from adults to larvae, size of the flyline tippet, weighted or unweighted, fast or slow retrieve, and dozens of other changes.  All with the Barrancosa troutpurpose of getting the right combination to entice the trout to move to take the fly. Tedious at times, but nearly always successful.  On a recent trip to Argentina we fished a small river with some very big, and very selective trout. I spotted a very large trout in a pool in the river and it took 30 minutes of constant changing flies, sizes, colours and presentations to finally get it to strike. If nothing else, fly fishermen are patient creatures.

So, what’s flyfishing got to do with leadership?

If you expect others to do things just because you tell them to, you may be in for a long wait. Try changing how you lead and watch how quickly others respond.

As I said earlier, people are a lot like trout. They have many moods and multiple behaviours and often respond to only selective input. Sometimes its the input (ideas or suggestions) and other times it’s how they are presented!

After over 30 years of consulting, coaching and observing leaders as they go about their work of executing their business strategies, I am constantly amazed at how sparse and narrow is their “leadership flybox”. In most cases leaders have come to rely on one or two leadership behaviours in nearly all situations. The only change seems to be the level of intensity or loudness.

hide and watch leadership style

When I talk to them about their leadership success and their style, most will say that they have honed a certain style ( some focused, others demanding, or coaching, or intense, pushing or guiding). They tell me that their leadership style has worked in the past and at previous companies, and it’s the “way they get results”.

But does it work in every case and under varied different conditions and situations?  Well, no, but the problem is the people don’t understand or they just aren’t capable and need to be replaced.  Really?  Sounds to me like a myopic and lazy fisherman who refuses to change flies but just keeps flogging the water with his favourite “go to” fly.

Several decades ago Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard came up with the notion of “situational leadership“, where leaders first  understood the situation and the context people were experiencing, and then adjusted their leadership behaviour to match the situation. A crisis often requires more directive and urgent, hands on leadership style. A changing competitive landscape or sudden shifts in technology might require a leadership style which encourages innovative ideas and new ways of doing things.  A merger or integration may require diplomatic skills. The Situational Leadership model developed and applied by Blanchard has its drawbacks and is often seen as overly simplistic. However, the concept, when put into practice intelligently has great merit. Instead of matching the hatch, leaders are matching the needs of their people and the situation.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, every task looks like a nail!

Next time you are faced with a leadership challenge, take a moment to “stop, look, listen, learn” before jumping into leadership autopilot mode.  You might find that changing your approach produces better results all around.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, ecosystems, flyfishing, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, Self-improvement, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Leadership Lessons from Fly Fishing

  1. Dave Eaton says:

    Wonderful John

    Dave Eaton +1.617.306.1411 -Mobile Sent from my mobile device Please excuse errors & omissions


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