I learned two valuable leadership lessons while using a hedge trimmer.

You can learn two powerful leadership lessons…from a piece of lawn equipment.
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I tend to learn things in the strangest of places, so why not while trimming our tree line?

As I was clearing back our tree line for the last time in 2012, the hedge trimmer kept getting stuck on the bigger branches, which was slowing me down big time.

So naturally, my reactions, in order, were to:

  1. Sigh deeply and mutter about the quality of hedge trimmer we purchased.
  2. Violently shake the hedge trimmer while keeping the power going.
  3. Turn off the power, come to my senses and slowly dislodge the branch from the blades.
  4. Calmly remind myself that the first two steps were unnecessary.
  5. Repeat.

It dawned on me that three things were true of what I was experiencing.

  1. I was using the hedge trimmer in a way for which it was not designed. What I really needed was a chainsaw. I was asking it to do something out of its skill set.
  2. The first two steps mentioned above were truly unnecessary and unproductive. 
  3. I was learning two valuable leadership lessons from it all.

So what were those leadership lessons?

1. When you are stuck, you have to come to a complete stop.

When life presents an unsolvable problem, and insurmountable obstacle, or you seem to be running circles, it is not the time to speed up. It is not the time to rev the engine. It is not the time to complain about the problem.

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It is time to shut down completely for a moment and assess the situation, calmly think through the options, and slowly make wise decisions on a course of action. There are times where life calls for quick thinking on the move. Great leaders know when to think quickly and when to take their time.

In the case of the hedge trimmer, I had to shut the power down, stop what I was doing, identify the offending branch, and carefully and completely remove it before I could turn it back on. If the branch were only identified, nothing would happen. If it were only partially removed, I’d still be stuck.

Only a complete stop and a complete removal of the problem will do the trick.

2. Like equipment, people work best when they are given the right job.

I was reminded that when equipment is used outside of its intended purpose, it usually doesn’t work very well. The same goes for people.

My frustration with the quality of the hedge trimmer was not an indictment of the product. It was an indictment of me for using it the wrong way. My hedge trimmer was not designed for branches of that size, but I continued to ask of it more than it could give.

I think back to how often I would ask a person I was leading to do something for which they were neither previously skilled at, nor had I trained them. Inevitably, they would fail. Inevitably, I would be upset about the quality of my hire.

The reality is that I need both a hedge trimmer and a chainsaw. Both of them do what they do well. A chainsaw makes a terrible hedge trimmer and vice versa. Customer service reps make terrible data analysts and vice versa. When I asked one to perform the other’s job, it always failed.

I didn’t hire poorly, just as I didn’t choose a bad hedge trimmer. I simply had them doing the wrong job.

It seems you can learn a lot from lawn equipment.

What lessons have you learned from strange places?

14 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from a Hedge Trimmer

  1. Bret Wortman says:

    You mean I don’t have to trade in my cordless electric for a gas-powered one? Crud. I was hoping to use my (same) experience as an excuse to buy more power tools, not learn something.

    Some days, I really hate you, Matt.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I do what I can Bret. 🙂

  2. Chance Smith says:

    Great insight on your yard work and leadership comparison.

    As you wouldn’t put a nurse in the mailing room, you wouldn’t put a axe to work where there were no trees. Their purpose is not being used, nor if they were used they would not be efficient or effective in their work.

    Good luck on your chainsaw hunt Matt!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Already have one thankfully 🙂 But it’s a pain to lug around just to trim the tree line. I need something in between.

  3. Carol Dublin says:

    Oh but Matt, those are such hard lessons to learn. They are they kind that have to be learned over and over again, especially the first one. I just try to keep on going and get mired up even worse. Definitely need to learn to stop and assess. Great post!

  4. Dan Erickson says:

    Hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc. Any tool that can be used wrong by man probably will be by every man living at some point. It’s learning to stop, study, and use the tool correctly that helps us learn.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      “Any tool that can be used wrong by man probably will be by every man living at some point. ”

      Well said Dan! that’s tweetable 🙂

    2. Mark Sieverkropp says:

      So true Dan! its amazing the amount of time and energy we waste using the wrong tool to accomplish a job!

  5. Dan Black says:

    Great lessons Matt. I especially liked lesson #2. It’s essential to find and stay focused on our purpose and strengths. I have found stores are a great place to observe and learn lessons. One of my favorite things to do is to people watch at a mall or busy store.

  6. Mark Sieverkropp says:

    Matt, you’ll have better luck trimming your trees when you get off that probation and you’re allowed to use chainsaws and other dangerous equipment again! hang in there!

    hmmm… the best lesson I’ve learned in a strange place has to be “Shake the ketchup before you open it!” haha. long story, I’ll tell ya sometime.

    I think its a matter of “When the learner is ready, the teacher appears”. Its AMAZING
    where you can learn lessons from! Some of my biggest realizations have come while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, laying in sagebrush coyote hunting, playing Wii.
    It’s a mindset. if you are focused on learning and growing you’ll find opportunities in every situation.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Just bought a new snowblower (and since I am from the south, my first snowblower I might add). That thing is POW.ER.FUL.

  7. Jon Stolpe says:

    A few years ago, I was cutting my grass with the lawn tractor. I’m not a big fan of the string trimmer (weed wacker), so I do everything possible to cut as much as possible with the tractor. One time while I was cutting the grass, I had to go in reverse when my tractor wouldn’t fit between the garden beds. Before I knew it, I was pinned between my tractor and a pair tree. I’m glad the neighbors weren’t out watching at the time. It took some flexibility, but I eventually unpinned myself. I learned that the string trimmer is sometimes a necessary evil. (And I almost learned the value of a chain saw.)

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Glad you made it out SAFE Jon 🙂

      Since you did, I have a mental picture…and I am laughing.

  8. Tom Dixon says:

    The right tool for the right job, and the the right person for the right job – good reminder. People do best when working in their strengths. That is a part of a job search a lot of people forget – start with what you love and are good at – which requires introspection that most people skip. For the record, I don’t think i’d trust myself with a chain saw…

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