THINK about this for a moment: If you were given an afternoon to chop down a tree with an axe all by yourself, what would you do?

Would you:

(a) start working on it right away?

(b) analyse the structure of the tree and design a strategy?

(c) take other action?

I asked 300 managers this question. About 35 per cent of them said they would start chopping the tree right away and 60 per cent said they would first analyse the situation and design a plan to execute the task. Only 5 per cent chose to take other actions, such as “waiting for the right moment”; “getting whatever help they might need”; or “seeking an expert’s advice”.

What would you do?

Take a cue from Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents. He said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Having chopped down many trees for a living as a young man, Lincoln knew how to be effective at the task. That is, when all you have is an axe to chop down a tree, you must make sure the axe is as sharp as it can be.

In business, it means making sure that your best assets are up to the job. This simple strategy has enormous implications for today’s corporate executives.

One of the most important assets in any organisation is its people. Ask any business leader and he will tell you that one capable and motivated employee is sometimes more useful than five incapable or unmotivated ones.

So, in what ways can, or should, a manager sharpen his people?

Broadly, it involves two things: first, increasing their level of competence; and second, enhancing their level of motivation and confidence.

Productive approach

It is important to make sure that your group members are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their tasks. Simply pushing employees with KPIs or threatening them with negative repercussions for bad performance is counterproductive.

A more productive approach is to equip them with effective thinking skills, problem-solving strategies, decision-making techniques, customer service techniques, and whatever else is relevant. In short, competence levels cannot be enforced. They can only be achieved with proper learning and experience.

Instil confidence

Studies have shown that people work best when they feel confident and motivated. One vital goal you must achieve as a corporate leader is to ensure that the individuals in your group are motivated enough to do their job to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, most managers do not see this goal as an important objective and it is often written off as a non-critical issue, resulting in employees feel demoralised and leading to declining performance.

There are many ways to motivate your people and instil in them a sense of confidence. Among other things, a leader can help his people achieve a sense of belonging by appreciating their presence, a sense of achievement by praising their work and a sense of importance by acknowledging their unique strengths.

Positive leadership

Demonstrating a positive mood as a leader is also critical.

A study showed that when leaders are positive (for example, being thankful and optimistic instead of being spiteful and sarcastic), their group members tend to experience more optimism and less disappointment, exhibit more positive than negative behaviours, and expend less effort to achieve their tasks compared with groups with leaders who are negative.

You cannot inspire everyone by your bravery, embolden everyone with your encouragement or spur everyone with your fool-proof plans. But as a leader, you can and must try to increase your staff’s levels of competence and motivation. Unless this twin goal is achieved, a leader is shortchanging his organisation.

Today’s organisations are filled with well-educated and experienced managers. However, a competent manager with a team of competent and motivated employees can accomplish so much more.