Angling for Better Leadership

Or, how good leadership is a lot like good fishing.


It seems like an odd analogy at first. After all, the energy and drive required to be a leader may contrast the long moments of anticipation and relaxation associated with fishing. Still, the craft of fishing is one of mankind’s earliest pursuits. In fact, studying the earliest permanent settlements indicates that procuring seafood was an integral part of survival. Fishing techniques and equipment have evolved significantly over the years, but the basic principle has become ingrained into our cultural consciousness.


Fishing may not be as central to society’s survival as it once was, but there are still lessons to be learned from it. The most obvious is perhaps that, sometimes, things are outside of your control. As a leader and as a fisherman, you can equip yourself with the best tools and knowledge to get the job done, but your success can depend on whether or not the (figurative or literal) fish are biting. When fishing, it falls on you to know when and where to go to get results, in the same way that being a leader involves harnessing the strengths of a business to ensure its success. In the same way that fishermen have developed different techniques and tools over the years to improve their craft, you must work to innovate and positively affect your business.


With this acceptance of the unknown factors in life comes patience. Fishermen must be prepared to wait a considerable length of time for their efforts to pay off. While sitting around and waiting for a fish to bite is, as previously mentioned, dissimilar to the effort that goes into the creation and maintenance of a business, leaders must know when to act and when to wait. Extra effort at a critical moment can be the difference between success and failure. And, when starting a new business, it may take a while for efforts to pay off, but waiting for that bite is worth every second.


And, despite the waiting, fishing is still an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, and it gets better with friends. From veteran anglers that have invested thousands in gear to children just learning to hold a rod, part of fishing is spending time with others and learning from them. So too is the nature of business; good leaders should be good followers. A leader should be humble enough to recognize when an individual has more experience than them in a particular field and defer to them when necessary. There’s no sense in insisting on being in charge all of the time—this is the difference between a true leader and an individual merely pretending to be one.


Conversely, as the old saying goes, if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Despite its antiquity, the saying is doubly relevant here, where teaching an employee or fellow fisherman something new can yield lasting benefits for them. For that matter, work to perfect your teaching techniques—are you communicating as unambiguously and cleanly as possible? Impart both the factual knowledge of types of bait and gear and the technical knowledge of proper casting and reeling to those you teach to fish. Similarly, leaders should provide their team members with both a strong knowledge base and the skills to act on it.


And part of learning is knowing what equipment and bait to use. I made a point earlier that good preparation is sometimes half of what is necessary to be a strong leader or angler. Adding to that, fishing is about using the right tools in the right environment. Fly fishing has always been one of my passions, but the rods, bait, and even casting technique are far different than other angling methods. Business leaders must be agile and know the skills that they need on their team will vary widely by industry.


They also need to be adaptable; if a certain type of bait isn’t receiving any bites, it behooves a fisherman to change his or her approach and try new tactics. In business, leaders must be prepared to experiment and think outside of the box—even if this can sometimes involve letting go an employee that they realize is not congruent with a business’ goals.


Given the patience involved, there’s a surprising amount of factors to consider when fishing. Less surprisingly is the gamut of soft skills involved in leadership, and though seemingly disparate, the struggle inherent in fishing closely mirrors that uphill battle that business leaders face.