Leadership Lessons from my Koi Pond

Leaders can learn a lot from a fish.

It’s true…I’ll show you.

Last year we moved into a new home here in Fort Wayne, IN. It has a small pond (pictured on the right), approximately forty-five feet deep by twenty-five feet wide. The pond is filled with beautiful little koi, a fish that prior to last fall I knew nothing about. As I learned about this fascinating fish, I immediately saw a connection between them and the people we lead.

Business Leadership Lesson from Koi - Matt McWilliams Pond

Don’t be a “limiting leader.” Your team will only grow as far as your boundaries allow them.
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Leadership is all about getting others to do great work. To do that leaders must create the right work environment and then provide their team members with the right opportunities to grow. A leader’s job is to help each team member realize his or her full potential.

What I learned about the koi is that if you confine it to a tiny fish bowl, it’s maximum size is about two to three inches. Put it in a large fish tank and it will grow to about double that size. Put it in a pond our size and they max out around eight inches. Put it in a large pond (one to three acres) and koi can grow up to eighteen inches long.

But…if you put the koi in a large lake, they can flourish in sizes up to three feet long!

What I realized is that people are just like koi. We will only grow as far as our boundaries allow us. A koi in a fishbowl will never grow to be three feet long…or even one foot long. The fish bowl limits the amount of its growth.

A leaders job is to give his or her people a Great Lake to grow in. We must give them wide boundaries in which to take risks, make mistakes, help others, and learn along the way. When we put our team members in a small bowl, we will never see them grow and reach their full potential.

Here are four ways to give your team more room to grow:

1. Learn to say “I don’t know.”

When your team comes to you for answers, don’t feel like you have to be the one to provide the answer. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” and encourage them to figure it out themselves.

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2. Don’t punish first time mistakes.

You have to give your team room to mess up and learn from their mistakes. If a team member takes a well thought out risk and the person fails, encourage them for their effort, discuss what can be learned from it, and do not let them become gun shy about future risk-taking. Note: The flip side to this is “do punish repeat mistakes.”

3. Delegate.

One thing I learned the hard way is that a leader is only as good as his team is at doing his job. Read that again (for two reasons…it’s really good and  it’s a hard sentence to read). A leader will only succeed as far as he can delegate. I found that the more of my job my team knew how to do, the better my team was. (And for those freaks who worry about being replaced, if you’re team is succeeding because you are delegating well, do you really think your boss is going to fire the leader? The only danger you face is being promoted, so stop acting like a child and teach your team)

4. Encourage team-think.

Two heads really are better than one. And four are better than two. So encourage your team to expand their thinking and knowledge by working together. This goes back to point #1…in order for your team members to grow, the team itself must grow, and the central source of knowledge and decision-making ability must no longer rest with you, the leader, but with your team.

See, leaders can learn a lot from a fish.

Don’t be a “limiting leader.” Give your team room to grow and reach their potential and you, the leader, will reap the rewards.

Question: How have you seen leaders limit their team members’ growth? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • I love Koi! your so lucky.

    One thing I have seen a lot, and have experience as well, is having the fear of losing your job hanging over you head. Leaders falsely think that it motivates people, but fear just paralyzes them.

    • Jim, the same thing applies with any area of life I have found.

      Fear motivates someone to eat better and exercise for about two weeks. “You’re going to have a heart attack if you don’t…” That lasts for two weeks and then the desire for sleep or watching TV or eating a Ding-Dong overpowers the fear. Fear is easily overpowered.

      “If you eat right and exercise, you will live longer and healthier and look better” is a positive motivator that can last a lifetime. They are not easily overpowered.

  • You’ve done it again Matt. Surprised me with your starting point, and inspired me with your suggestions. The point that resonates most with me is delegate – and really, another bonus of training your team to do your job by delegating is that when you are promoted, there will be a pool of replacements to choose from. Also, the more you empower your team the happier they will be and the harder they will work. Great post!

    • Thank you Carol!

      On your note about promotions and delegating, one crucial factor I look at when deciding to promote someone or not is “is there someone readily available to replace him or her.”

      It’s ironic that if the answer is “no” it means he or she has not delegated well or trained well. Therefore, not only can I not promote the person because I don’t have a replacement, but it makes the decision easy because I don’t want new leaders who don’t delegate well.

      Come to think of it…that may the single most important question a leader can ask in the promotion process. (I feel a blog post coming on!)

      • Ha – so glad I could stimulate another post! Keep up the good work.

  • I think it happens all the time. As leaders and as organizations, we get used to the way things have always been done. Even minor variations in this thinking tend not to push the limits all that far. I think a real challenge that leaders and organizations face is how to dream and think big while maintaining and keeping the things that work and have worked for so long. It’s a balancing act for sure. I know for certain that I don’t want to be content with the status quo.

    • Woah. This is powerful:

      “a real challenge that leaders and organizations face is how to dream and think big while maintaining and keeping the things that work and have worked for so long.”

      I’d say the same thing is true about trying to just stay afloat sometimes. It’s hard to see one or two years down the road and truly prepare people for greatness when you’re mind is stuck in “stay alive” mode.

      Good stuff Jon!

      • I guess another way to think about it is this way: You wouldn’t want to instantly throw your carnival gold fish into Lake Michigan telling it to grow up. It will simply be eaten by a much larger fish or it will get lost. We need to consider how we can gradually move people (and ourselves) from the fish bowl to the bigger tank and from the tank to the pond and so forth.

        • Chance Smith

          They will “sink or swim”….pretty deep, yeah!? Love that analogy of slow and steady growth Jon. You push too hard and you will find their limit. They will be swallowed by the growth of the others in the pond, like Jon said, or they will get lost in the environment Like an ant trying to find the picnic in the park. The source to survive best be close.

        • Dude. That is a great way of putting it Jon!

          Way to flip the analogy around and make great point.

          • Thanks, Matt. This is one of the great things about blogging and the community that develops through the comments. You always get new perspectives and ideas.

  • Leaders have to inspire people to dream big and reach their full potential.

  • Chance Smith

    AAHHH! You Nailed it! Delegating is the way to your business’s success and growing your team. You can only do so much. Your team is there to help you and your there to mentor and guide.

    Learn to say “I don’t know”: Now you have given them the larger environment to not only expand, but find their own source of food too. It’s like taking your plants from your dinning room and into the garden. Now you only need to water and feed them when “times” are tough for them. Now you have offered it room for growth as well.

    Wonderful post Matt! I didn’t know that about Koi fish.

    Is that why people get Koi tattoos? So we can all see their personal growth….as they ….grow? Ouch!

    • I think people get Koi tattoos because they are crazy. Personally speaking at least 🙂

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