What Executive Leaders Can Learn from Fly Fishing Tangles

Tue, Jan 22, 2013

IMG 1307 resized 600Last summer, we took a road trip from San Francisco, through Zion, Bryce, and on to Telluride, Colorado. While in Telluride, we took a fly fishing lesson from Marty at Telluride Fly Fishers. Marty was a great guide and very patient with this city girl! I had piled on several layers of clothes in anticipation of wide temperature swings in the Rockies.

Marty outfitted us with waders and wader boots. I slathered on gobs of sunscreen, donned heavy duty sunglasses, and a hat for extra protection. I looked like Nanook of the North and collectively we looked like Hans and Frans!IMG 1306 resized 600

Looking the part, I thought I was ready act the part! Besides, I was there in a dual role. As your Tangle Doctor, I recognized the opportunity to observe analogies between fly fishing and leadership tangles! 

Conscious Leaders Create Less Tangles

Marty eased us in to fly fishing by having us first cast from a parking lot next to a stream. Fortunately, I didn't hook any trucks or cars! We soon got the hang of the motion and he took us to the gorgeous river pictured above. I waded in and cast and then reeled the line in again and again. There were a few trees to be wary of and as long as I was conscious of my surroundings, I avoided snagging a tree. In the business world, it takes conscious effort to not get oneself entangled in miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Simple Tangles Happen

Even with expert guidance from our guide, and even after a perfect cast, the lure itself got caught in my line and in a tree. When there were only a few knots, it was pretty easy to find the loose end and separate the lure from the line, untangling the line. I just needed to step back, relax, gently pull on a line here and there, and let the source of the knot emerge.

In real life, it is much the same. When tangles-- unproductive working relationships, snarled lines of communication, and fuzzy lines of authority--show up, leaders, teams and organizations experience eightened emotions, conflict, blame, and "us versus them" thinking and behavior. For these types of tangles, leaders need to step back and figure out where to start, remain patient, try different approaches, and experiment with ways to rebuild trust and collaboration with diverse groups of people.

Sometimes You Have to Cut the Line and Start Over

Back on the river in Telluride, one of my lures got caught in the line and was hopelessly tangled. We tried to untangle the line and could not. There was only one solution. Marty got out his scissors and cut it off. He started over with a new lure and fly. 

In the business world, if the tangles get so bad, and I call these "Strangling Tangles," it is sometimes better to bring in a new team and start over. About five years ago, I did a case study of a company that had been nearly bankrupt, brought in new leadership, and turned the company around. This was only possible because the team that created the knotted mess could not see its way out. A new and bold visionary leader came in, brought in action-oriented leadership, made some tough decisions, and turned things around. 

In fly fishing, I was a beginner and didn't fully get the hang of casting on a river bed, surrounded by big trees. Marty, our guide, was an expert, and he had honed his peripheral vision so that he not only could easily spot fish. He rarely snagged his own line.

But with the right guide, even as a beginner, I was able to avoid all but one strangling tangle. Marty, our guide, was an expert, like the turn-around leader, and he had honed his peripheral vision so he could help me avoid snagging my own line, and show me what to do quickly when it became snagged beyond an easy repair.

If you have snarled lines of communication and unproductive teams, if conflict and misunderstanding gets in the way of productivity; remember to remain conscious and address tangles before they strangle your organization, and also remember, help from a guide may be quite useful. 

By the way, Marty's coaching was expert enough that not only did I learn more about tangles. I was able to catch and release two fish! Less tangles meant more productivity. The same is true in the business world! 


Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Lists by Topic

see all

Posts by Topic

see all

Recent Posts