This is a well known phrase, dating back in one form or another to at least the late 19th Century in the English speaking world and perhaps going much further back in Chinese culture, that is often used to promote the notion of making people self sufficient.
I like to interpret it through the lens of leadership. Looking at the first line, you can micromanage (give someone a fish) and make them dependent on you for success. In other words, if whenever a team member asks a question or has a problem your reaction is to tell them how to solve it, all you’ve done is taught that team member to be dependent on you. This isn’t even always about micromanaging; I’ve seen this with one of my leads who was working with a developer struggling to learn a new technology. Every time she had a question, the lead found it easiest to simply give her an answer. Eventually the lead realized that he wasn’t doing her any favors and indeed had made her dependent on him.
So, true to the adage, a better approach is to teach, which in the example above would involve teaching the team member how to use the new technology. The problem is that we often simply do just that: teach the “what” or the “how” of things. Doing this certainly solves near-term problems. Imagine as a CFO you have a bookkeeper that had to ask you every day how to enter items in the ledger. You would quickly switch to teach mode and make sure the bookkeeper knew what information went where, how to enter receivables, and so forth. However, if you didn’t teach why the ledger was set up the way it was in the first place, why specific accounts were created for example, the bookkeeper will still not be able to solve next level problems.
Or take the fishing example. What happens when the particular fish you’ve been taught how to catch doesn’t go for the same bait anymore? Or that species dies out? Or the riverbed dries up? Or you move away from water? While in some regards this seems remarkably trivial we do this all the time: we focus our teaching on what and how, and yet wonder why people can’t solve problems without us.
Thinking About "Why"
This is where principle-driven leadership comes in. Principle-driven leadership is all about teaching the “why” of what you do. Leading through principles gives your team members the philosophy to make decisions in your absence. It’s teaching people how to think, not how to do.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, talks about the difference between algorithmic and heuristic work. Algorithmic workers essentially follow an established instruction set that leads them to a conclusion; in other words, there’s an algorithm for getting the work done. Heuristic workers are attacking problems that may need experimentation, research, creativity, etc. to reach an appropriate outcome. In other words, they are often dealing with a level of unknown.
I believe that knowledge workers are firmly in the heuristic category and as such require more than simply being told what to do (and for what it’s worth, I think algorithmic workers can benefit from principle-driven leadership as well). Your heuristic workers need enough autonomy to be creative in how they approach problems but tempered with principles to guide their experimentation in a meaningful fashion.
Don’t get me wrong, thinking about why you do things is daunting. That’s why most of us shy away from it. We might not know why we do things, or we might not want to explain it, we might even think we act solely on instinct. Digging deep into ourselves can be uncomfortable.
However, there’s no way a senior user experience designer could think of every scenario a junior designer will encounter in their career, nor could an experienced software developer explain every possible combination of code a junior developer will use in a lifetime. So we shouldn’t pretend we can.
Instead, we should lay down the principles that guide us in our decision making and use that to steer our teams along with clear guidance on the expected outcome of their work. If they understand where they’re trying to go and why you think the way you think, you’ve enabled them to accomplish great things in your absence. You might even be able to take a vacation without worrying!
So to embrace principle-driven leadership, I’ve revised the opening adage:
Not particularly catchy, but I believe this is the most powerful way to lead. If we arm our teams with well-thought out principles and set clear outcomes to guide their work, they will exceed our expectations.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.