What Sharpens Iron?

What sharpens iron?

What sharpens iron? Every leadership “junkie” has probably been exposed to the Biblical passage from Proverbs that gives us the answer to that very question.

It is iron that sharpens iron. Or at least it is some other substance that is as hard as iron such as a whetstone or grinding wheel. If that is the case, that iron sharpens iron, then what are the implications for you and I as leaders?

We often only look at ourselves as the ones that will be doing the sharpening. But what (or who) is sharpening you? We need to constantly be in contact with something or someone who sharpens our leadership skills.

The first time I was exposed to this concept was many years ago in 1990 when Steven Covey published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “Sharpen your saw” is Habit #7. This habit was encouraged so that we take care of ourselves on physical, mental and emotional levels. Only then would we have the “strength” to remain highly effective.

Only the confident and strong leaders will offer themselves to be sharpened by others. In fact, it goes against our basic human nature to subject ourselves to the sharpening of another. Rather than feel the impact or abrasion of a sharpening steel, we prefer to run our blades through much softer material and slice away at that softer substance.

Unfortunately, as fun as that may be, the act of cutting through those substances dulls our blade’s edge over time. I refer you back to Covey’s words for more of the whys and wherefores. But you will acknowledge from your own experience as a kid whittling a stick that your pocket knife will become dull over time if you do not stop and sharpen it periodically. In the end, the softer wood will dull the blade.

More than once I have left a pocket knife outside after sitting on the back porch whittling a point onto a dead tree branch. Invariably it will have rained before I discover where I left my pocket knife. And by the time I retrieve it if will have taken on a coating of rust and tiny pits and pock marks, though microscopic, will have formed on the blade and damaged its shine.

Water, that vital substance of life, has degraded my blade and potentially left permanent damage on the blade. I can polish and oil the blade, but if I leave it out in the rain for too long I may never remove the rust that forms and begins to eat away at the steel. Often the higher quality the steel, the more susceptible it is to damage of this sort. In the end, the water will degrade the blade.

What is the leadership lesson?

I think the leadership lesson is that we need to be strong enough and confident enough to be sharpened from time to time. But here is the caveat: I will not allow just anyone to come and sharpen their blade against mine. You will need to earn that right. You cannot come out of the blue and attempt to sharpen my sword, knife, saw, or any other device. You need will need to gain that right through extended periods of dialog and from a strong and trusted advisory relationship.

And for my readers out there who have a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible – I realize that there are times where leaders will need to be rebuked. The story of King David and Nathan the prophet found in 2 Samuel, Chapter 12 comes to my mind. It is a story of rebuke and repentance for King David.  And it is the story of the consequences to King David even after his repentance.

If you are considering yourself to be a “prophet”, you had better be real clear that it is God that is calling you to speak to the king and not your own personal reasons. And if you read that story carefully, you will see that Nathan chose to speak to King David through a narrative story. And it was only when King David became indignant in his response that Nathan uttered those fateful words to David.

Just some words to consider as each of us strives to become a better (sharper) and more “sharpenable” leader.


Photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy / Foter / CC BY-SA

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I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

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