Anything Fly Fishing

Leadership Lessons from Fly Fishing

3 Mins read

Author: Fly Fishing for Leadership

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 are 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.

For 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 leader and tippet, weighted or unweighted, fast or slow retrieve, and dozens of other changes. All with the purpose of getting the right combination to entice the trout 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 and it took 30 minutes of constant changing flies, sizes, colours and presentations to finally get it to strike. This trout finally took a mouse pattern! 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 it’s the input (ideas or suggestions) and other times 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.

When I talk to them about their past success as a leader, 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? The usual response is: “Well, no, but the problem is the people. They 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 take the time to understand the situation and the context people were experiencing, and then adjust their leadership behaviour to match the person and the situation. A crisis often requires a more direct and 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 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.

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