This One Weird Discovery Made Me a Better Leader

Leaders can learn a lot from a fish. It’s true…I’ll show you. Two years ago we moved into a new home here in Fort Wayne, IN. It has a small pond (pictured below), 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.

Leadership Lesson from Koi Pond

Don’t be a “limiting leader.” Your team will only grow as far as your boundaries allow them. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

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.

Key takeaway: 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 leader’s 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.

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

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.

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.”


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 your 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).

Action item: Start delegating today. Focus on two areas of tasks. The stuff you hate doing and the stuff you can’t do it. Delegate it now.

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.

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