The Sunday Mail
Hunt for Greatness
Methods, means, and materials may change but principles remain. Some life lessons are learnt doing what seems to be different and unrelated. You can never be made smaller by learning something new. In the old, something new is concealed and in the new the old is revealed and better understood.
At Grade 6 we were considered mature enough to hold, use tools and prepare for a worthy trade. That thinking was powerful and responsible. Every week we had two or three lessons in woodwork and carpentry under the guidance of an experienced artisan and teacher, Mr Mabhena. He was unforgettable and was held in high esteem. He was an experienced carpentry and joinery artisan, who had also gone on to do a teacher’s certificate. He was a professional and he taught carpentry and moulded lives. Mr Mabhena was our woodwork mentor and guide at Masuku Primary School in Tshabalala Township of Bulawayo.
He took us through lessons in workshop safety as a foundation. He introduced us to various tools and principles of carpentry. He taught us to manage our work spaces. We learnt about making cuts, joints and a host of other issues.
The lessons were unforgettable and always engaging. You could not forget principles like measure twice and cut once. The lessons were all practical and done in the carpentry workshop and around the workbenches. The Grade 6 project was making a bookshelf, and the following year we made a tea-tray. We would start by planning the project, then wood selection, measurement, sawing, planning, cutting, preparing surfaces, using glass paper, and ultimately applying varnish. Our experienced mentor and teacher would share a principle, demonstrate it and then give each one of us a chance to apply the lessons. It was all learning by doing. He was coaching us before everyone was talking about coaching.
After many decades I realise that those carpentry lessons were not just to pass primary school time and finish the primary school curriculum. They were an essential foundation of life, strategy, leadership and greatness. It is these essential lessons that if applied well are important touchstones of leadership and life on all planes. Greatness in life and leadership are very much like carpentry. The final product counts but the journey to that final product is important. The pride of good workmanship matters. Everything that goes into the planning, prosecution, and product presenting helps build character, confidence and skill. The more you practice the better you become and the more confident you get in using tools. Until you have a challenge that requires a special tool, you likely will never use that tool. Be careful of the “one-tool” expert. Not every problem can be cured by the one single solution.
All things are created at least twice. The mental creation precedes the physical fashioning. If your mind does not work, your plans will not work and your hands will be weak. Without a clear vision and blue prints of intended outcomes, materials are wasted and tools lie idle. Blurred plans lead to blunt execution. In carpentry you go beyond wishes and the first step is always a model on paper.
If it looks good on paper you have a better chance of producing something great in the workshop. Leading without a clear vision is an exercise in futility. Having a vision that is not concrete leads to jelly-like execution. Leading is not just for the sake of having a position and making pronouncements. Leadership is always to achieve stated goals and outcomes. This is why leadership without a strategy is an oxymoron. What do you want to produce? What will it be used for? How will it look. You create best when you are guided by a clear vision and strategy.
Planning is important but not enough. Having tools is necessary but not sufficient. Owning resources alone does not bring greatness. Without a platform of the required intelligence endowments are wasted, opportunities squandered and power is abused. Having advantage alone will not make you win. This is what every carpenter knows. This is why only bad workmen blame their tools. The key to greatness is consistent execution. You have to plough through whatever limitation and possible excuse you face.
Vision in itself without action is a mere dream without launching power. Once you have a clear plan, you need to carry out the plans. That was Mr Mabhena’s lesson: you do not come into the workshop to play but to work on your project. Greatness takes work, diligence and effort. When you encounter an obstacle you call for help, but you do not give up. There is nothing like success without work, learning and dealing with challenge. In carpentry, as in all life, you do not manufacture anything through merely wishing for it. You have to do the necessary work to make it happen. Armchair greatness is a myth.
A carpenter’s peculiar treasure is the toolbox. The bigger your collection of tools, the bigger your tool box. The better your tools, the greater your flexibility and excellence. Power tools give you the power to do that which manual tools take long to do. Apart from mastering the craft, a good carpenter is always on the lookout for new and better tools. Better tools portend better work. Such is the journey of greatness.
The process of life and leading is a process of picking up tools, learning how they work and using them confidently. Not every tool works everywhere, but every tool will always have a place. All work starts with the selection of the right tools. Knowledge is a tool. Models are tools. Software and hardware are tools. Organisations are tools. Leading involves hunting for the right tools and artisans. This is why leaders are always learners.
Keep developing and growing your toolbox. Keep investing in good tools and mastering their use. Mr Mabhena taught us how to use different saws. We used the hand saw, the tenon saw, the circular saw. The saw selected depended on the nature of the cut desired. In carpentry you try to match the tool to the task. You do not use a sledgehammer for a nail.
The task in life is to match the tool to the task, the position to the person, the structure to the strategy. Reading and ongoing learning allow you to keep growing your toolbox. Unfamiliar situations require you to develop new skills and acquire new tools. Do not resort to using inefficient tools because you are afraid of going through the learning curve of mastering new tools. Beyond any learning curve lies excellence of execution. Keep looking for and mastering tools.
Carpenters have to deal with problems. Wood comes in different types and different conditions. You do not throw away timber because of knots. Mr Mabhena taught us to look at problems, not as a headache but as opportunities. Change what you can, and work with what you have to. Every problem is an opportunity for creativity, improvisation and tool flexibility. Some tools seem like they do similar things, but when you look deeper you realise that each tool is better equipped to solve a problem. The most important thing is the desired outcome.
Stay committed to the outcome but be willing to vary your method, select the appropriate materials and use the best tools. In some cases, you have to manufacture your own tools. Never let problems disappoint you and discourage you from thinking and innovating. Creativity thrives where problems abound. Tools may change, but the challenge does not, fundamentals remain fundamentals.
Carpenters have the same language, but not the same skill level. They make cuts, drill holes, make different type of joints. You are not a carpenter if you do not know what a dovetail joint is. They also have to work with different materials and surfaces. A bad carpenter and a master carpenter use the same tools, materials, techniques and may even be under the same roof. But one stands out for excellence and expertise.
You cannot become a master without dealing with failure, accepting criticism and managing feedback. Do not fear failure because without failure you cannot become a master or an expert. Carpentry and all leadership are the pursuit of excellence. Excellence has to be pursued. There are no limits to what the final product can represent. It is not enough to recreate the results of yesterday.
The final layer
An important lesson that Mr Mabhena taught us was the final presentation of the product. We learnt about wood polishing and applying wax or wood oils. We also learnt about applying vanish and had to apply three coats to our project pieces. For a carpenter excellence is always the horizon. The final layer in all the work of a carpenter is the carpenter himself. Such is the challenge of greatness. Things come to life when you apply yourself to them. You work through obstacles.
What someone calls an ugly piece of timber becomes a master piece when it has passed through the hands of a master. What others call problems, are opportunities crying for attention. You are not a captain if you complain about turbulence and are looking for turbulence-free flights. You are also not a master of business if you only want to operate business in predictable and problem free contexts, where your only challenge is counting the money. It is not the tools or the techniques that matter finally but how you apply them.
Committed to your greatness.
Milton Kamwendo is a leading international transformational and motivational speaker, author, and growth mentor. He is a cutting-edge strategy, team-building and organization development facilitator and consultant. His life purpose is to inspire and promote greatness. He can be reached at: [email protected] and His website is: www.miltonkamwendo.com