Six Lessons About Teams from a Swiss Army Knife

Swiss Army Knife

By Clint Rusch


When I was about 10 years old, my father gave me my first pocketknife. It was a small one – just two blades, nothing more, and I chose to get a green one, rather than the traditional red.
Within about a week, I had cut myself closing the small blade.

Today, I carry a Leatherman multitool that’s indispensable in most small work around the house. Again, I’ve opted to keep it (mostly!) simple, so my Leatherman isn’t the super-complex one – it has two knives (serrated and smooth), a file, the multi-tool pliers (pliers, needlenose, wire cutter), a saw blade, scissors, a can opener, a bottle opener, and three screwdrivers (large and small that have both Philips head and flathead, and a medium flathead). The interior section of the body is also engraved with imperial and metric markings – so it’s a functional ruler as well.

I don’t cut myself anymore on it, and it’s gotten a lot more use than my old pocketknife ever did.

As I’ve grown and led teams, I’ve discovered that these two tools – my old pocketknife and my Leatherman – provide a very instructive case in how to build and lead an effective team.

First, the selection of a leader. I was too young to handle a bigger knife when I was 10, and the fact that I cut myself so quickly might indicate I was too young to handle the knife I had! Being able to understand the capabilities of a leader, whether for a project or a team before giving them the mandate of the job is a key input to ensuring success; that’s not to say that leaders shouldn’t be asked to stretch, but rather that their ability to stretch should be viewed in the context of their current skillset.

Second, there’s value in learning from other leaders, people who’ve trod the ground on which you’re about to walk. My father told me that I should get a red knife, not a green one – he pointed out that the red would be easier to see if – er, when – I dropped the knife in the woods. I didn’t listen…because I was a headstrong kid…and naturally, on our first camping trip after I got it, I spent a good hour on my hands and knees looking for my new knife among the leaves and detritus on the forest floor.

Third, every tool – and every team – needs a diverse skillset. My multitool today is substantially more capable than my old Swiss Army Knife – I can do things that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I just had two blades (and a band-aid on my thumb!). The ability to integrate a set of pliers into a knife changed the ability of the tool to be ‘just a knife’ and made it an almost required item for most small jobs around the home. Teams often look at a different skill set and say ‘that’s not what we do,’ or ‘that’s not how we’ve done it before,’ and while there’s certainly value in maintaining a long-term cultural identity, failing to integrate new skills (or tools!) dooms a team (or a knife!) to longer-term irrelevance.

Fourth, every tool is designed for a job, and great leaders can both understand the true job that needs to be done and the right tool for that job. I can certainly use my serrated knife to cut through small tree branches – it’ll eventually work – but isn’t the saw a better tool for that use? Won’t it keep the serrated blade from dulling, keep my arm from aching, and keep me on time for results? Wearing out tools, painful implementations, slow processes – these aren’t the exclusive bailiwick of the backyard cleanup! Business leaders often err by saying ‘because Jane is a good salesperson, she’ll be a great manager,’ or ‘well, we need someone to do this job, and Mike isn’t busy, so let’s use Mike for it.’ Using the saw to cut a tomato obviously won’t work – but at the same time, the saw can cut through things that will often dull – or wear out – the knife blade. Selecting the right tool for the right task is a hard thing to do – but it’s what separates great leaders from merely adequate ones.

Fifth, the team works better when the leader knows the skills. I remember when I first got my multitool, I had a ton of trouble stripping wire with it. I was trying to use the wire cutters (located at the base of the pliers) to strip wire, but just not closing them all the way – but I was regularly cutting through the wire, not just stripping it. One day I was opening a beer with the bottle/can opener, when I noticed a small notch in its base. The notch had a sharp edge on it, and after spending a few minutes on Leatherman’s website and wiping some egg off my face, I discovered that the notch was intended to help strip wire. A good leader doesn’t just look at the people she has and say ‘I know what Steve can do, because I know what I hired Steve to do.’ A good leader asks Steve what his background is, filing that information away for future use – when a job comes up, that leader has the ability to reference Steve’s background and his interests to deliver the best results.

Finally, every team has limits. I’d never use the scissors on my multitool to cut the wrapping paper on Christmas Eve, for example – it’s too big of a job, and there’s a better tool for it (see above!). It’s an attractive idea to say that because the team is a good one, because it’s cohesive and has delivered successful results, it’s capable of anything, but a great leader can recognize when the job might be too much for the team, or when it’s outside the team’s core capabilities. When that happens, it’s time to grow the team or find another way to do the job – and that might include finding an outside resource, changing the timing or scope of the job, or breaking the job down into other tasks that can be accomplished in parallel. Ultimately, a great leader can understand when the branch is just too thick to be sawed through with the Leatherman, and when it’s time to go get a reciprocating saw.

Challenges with team capabilities and leadership aren’t new, nor are they limited to a single industry or a single function. Instead, they’re as omnipresent as Swiss Army Knives or Leatherman multitools, found on the hip or in the pocket of every Scoutmaster, contractor, soldier, backpacker, or handyman. Thinking about teams in the context of those multitools can be the difference between a scar on a thumb and an effective leader.

At Propulo, we work hand-in-hand with leaders who embrace the desire to find a diverse skillset in their teams, and unleash that power to help transform their organization. If you’re interested in knowing more about how our People Meet Process approach might help you, we’d love to talk.