An Axe to Grind: Leadership Lessons from an Axe-Throwing Offsite
I thought I was terrible at axe-throwing. Axe after axe missed the mark. All of my coworkers succeeded again and again, and I started to think I wasn't cut out for it. Until I tried a different shaped axe. Suddenly, even though my approach was unconventional, I was hitting the target every time.
While I worked at Google, I joined my team of engineers on an offsite at an axe-throwing range. When we arrived at the range, after a brief introductory lesson, my teammates and I began throwing our axes at the targets. After a couple minutes of practice, my teammates started hitting the target. It was amazing! I wondered, "have they done this before? They seem to be so natural at it!"
Meanwhile, when it was my turn to throw the axe, for whatever reason, the axe would under-rotate and its handle would hit the target, causing the axe to bounce back and clatter to the floor despite my best efforts. I was starting to feel pretty frustrated and thought that perhaps I was just terrible at axe-throwing.
After a number of failed throws at the axe-throwing range, someone pointed out to me a different shaped axe — it looked kind of like a ninja axe with blades on both sides. When I picked that one up and threw it, something very interesting happened: while the axe was still under-rotating, this time, when the handle hit the target, the axe jackknifed and lodged itself into the wood, UPSIDE DOWN. I tried again — and, lo and behold, the axe did the same thing! After a few more throws, I started to get the hang of it. Here I was, with a bizarro technique and using a different shaped axe than everyone else. Yet, I was able to hit the mark every time, albeit upside down. Even though my approach was unconventional, I was able to get the job done.
As I've gained experience as a leader and grown in seniority, I've observed that my basket of strengths are often complementary to those around me. And, a leadership style or technique that works for others may not necessarily work for me. Earlier in my career, I felt out of place due to the different profile of my interests and strengths. But as time has gone on, I have realized that my strengths, such as big-picture thinking and cross-functional approach to problem solving, are can be difficult to find in a universe more typically dominated by detail-oriented and inward-focused individuals.
Most importantly, I learned that sometimes systems set up for the majority may not inspire the greatest success in the rest of us. Despite that, we can learn to hit the target, even when the standard technique does not apply.
But in order to do that, it's important to choose the right axe.