Goldfish and Leadership

Recently I was doing some research about the process of transferring goldfish from a bag to an aquarium. I should state that I do not own any goldfish nor do I have plans to purchase a fish tank! However, what I read got me thinking about how this also applies to leadership.

Several of the teams I work with are in deep conversations about who their team leaders will be next season. With one of these teams, we are struggling because the players with the most leadership potential are young, inexperienced, and just “not yet ready.”

In my conversations with the coaching staff, we have discussed the fact that we NEED these players to be the leaders but we also need to respect the process of developing them so they can lead effectively. While we would love to just throw them out there and see what happens, we are very aware of the damage that could do to the new leaders and to the team!

As I read about goldfish and the process of moving them from a small bag to a large aquarium tank I noticed some good leadership lessons, particularly in regards to leaders who are embracing leadership for the first time.

  1. Don’t keep your goldfish in a bag forever: If you don’t move a goldfish from a bag to an aquarium there won’t be enough oxygen for them to survive. As a result, they suffocate or poison themselves with their own waste. How terrible does that sound?! We can apply this in leadership as well; leaders need room to grow. While it can be tiring and at times difficult to develop others as leaders we know they will never grow if we leave them where they are. We have to help leaders to move into larger spaces and this means we must be intentional about inviting them into a larger tank. With new leaders, this often needs to be a gradual process.

  2. Don’t overfeed your fish: Giving your goldfish too much food will simply create too much waste. The excess waste will produce toxic waters. While the intention might be good, the results can be deadly. In leadership, we may be tempted to give new leaders way too much information. When we do this, we literally muddy the waters for them. Give a new leader enough information to make good decisions but respect the fact that information overload is a real thing.

  3. Don’t make your fish swim in a dirty tank: While goldfish may seem low maintenance it is important that their caretakers are willing to clean the tank. Failure to do so will make survival stressful for the fish. As leaders who are trying to develop more leaders, we must be aware of the culture we are asking people to lead in. There may be times when we need to intervene and clean up the culture to make sure new leaders are able to lead effectively. Let your leaders lead, but stay close enough to support them and help to address a cultural mess as needed.

As you think about working with new leaders please remember that they, just like goldfish, will need time to acclimate. Good leaders are always learning but the growth curve for new leaders is high as they process their role from a new perspective. When you are intentional about how you welcome and develop new leaders on your team you are able to limit some of the shock to their system.

And just like goldfish, subtle changes can have a huge impact on the lives of new leaders. Be aware of what your people need and respect the time they need to develop.

Goldfish need care, so do your leaders.

Molly Grisham,
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Molly Grisham