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Does Your Leadership Need Salt?


December 17, 2020

By Rowan Van Dyk

Does Your Leadership Need Salt?

4 min

I am sure you have all heard the saying “ You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”? This is an age old proverb that was introduced to us by John Heywood way back in 1175. For those who do not know the proverb, or what is means, it basically implies that you can offer someone all the opportunities in the world, but unless they actually take the opportunity themselves, it is all for nothing. As a trainer and coach I have often heard this re-phrased in our industry to “you can lead a person to knowledge, but you can’t make them think”.

As a professional speaker and author I very often have to design graphics and book covers and so forth. What I have found is that Adobe Photoshop works the best for me. I have tried others like Canva and so on but I am too impatient, and probably technologically challenged, to learn those. I attended training classes to learn Photoshop and I have had one on one coaching several times, but I still suck at Photoshop. I can get some of the stuff I learnt done but there are some that I just can’t remember how to do. I have to keep calling in help. I will have to spend more time practicing Photoshop to eventually master it.

In these challenging and disruptive times we are facing, as leaders we have a responsibility to ensure we face the future with teams that are adequately skilled to do the job. This could mean re-skilling the team and providing them with new skills that will cater for the new technologies and so forth, or up-skilling them to improve their current level of skills.

This then brings me back to the horse and the water. This statement is not entirely true, because you can lead a horse to water and make it drink. You simply have to give the horse enough salt to eat and it will drink of its own free will. The more salt it eats, the thirstier it will get and then want to drink the water.

So then you ask, how does giving a horse salt apply to people, or even leadership for that matter?...I’m glad you asked that question.

Giving someone salt is done by creating the correct environment for the person to learn the skill and apply it regularly to ensure learning takes place. We can’t simply think that by providing someone with the knowledge, or even demonstrating the new skill, they will automatically adopt the new skill. That would be the same as assuming that simply because you led the horse to the water, it will automatically drink. If you do not create the right environment, they won’t learn.

I just love using pictures and acronyms when I am explaining something. For that reason I have thought it a good idea to use SALT as an acronym. Giving someone salt to make them learn a new skill requires four steps:

1.   Show and Tell – Give them all the knowledge they require to learn the new skill. The knowledge teaches the theory required to learn the new skills but it does not provide a guarantee that they have actually learnt the skill. Teaching them the knowledge only explains what has to be done but they still have to do it. Showing and telling someone has its own unique flaws in that: You might have misunderstanding of information due to language or other communication barriers; Your ability to explain something might lack some skill so you don’t provide the facts or figures correctly; You show and tell from your level of expertise and therefore you assume certain knowledge exists when it may in fact not exist in the person you are teaching.

2.   Application – This is a process of allowing them time to try out the new skill. They have an opportunity to put the knowledge they acquired previously into practice by applying it in the workplace or wherever. Although they are applying the knowledge, you still do not have a guarantee that they have actually learnt the skill. The inherent flaws in simply applying the skill once is that; Experience comes over time and does not happen instantaneously; Applying a skill once, as in my case with the Photoshop, does not provide enough practice to learn the skill properly. It has been shown through research that if you want to teach a horse to move around the paddock in the opposite direction, you have to forcibly lead it in the new direction for at least thirty days. The same concept applies to people. Have you ever wonder why, after telling them once or twice, the team members still do not follow the new steps you implemented. It is because they have not practiced the skill or new procedures long enough.

3.   Learning Through Practice – This is the opportunity they get to apply the newly learnt skill over and over and over. The more they practice the newly acquired skill, the better they will become at it. In the same way it takes a horse at least thirty days to learn the new action, and no I am not saying people are like horses, so also your team members will have to be shown, told and allowed to practice over and over again. I can remember as a child learning to ride a bicycle, and when I fell off the first time, my father telling me that in order to learn how to ride a bike properly, I would have to fall off at least seven times. This is definitely proof of the old saying that practice makes perfect.

4.   Teach It Forward – The ultimate test to see whether someone has learnt the skills, according to Benjamin Franklin, is to have them teach it or explain it to someone else. If they are able to explain or teach the skill to someone else it will show that they have mastered the skill. I use this many times during my training and coaching sessions where I have candidates that appear to be struggling to grasp the content, I engage one of the candidates that seem to understand and ask them to explain the content to their fellow candidates. This helps them immensely in understanding the content better.

Every time you do something regularly, you are building a referencing frame-work in your brain. The main component for achieving this referencing frame-work, is a substance called Myelin. Myelin is a fatty protein substance which forms an insulating layer around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. The Myelin Sheath is a protective covering that surrounds the fibers, called Axons, which are the long thin projections that extend from the main body of a nerve cell or neuron.

The main function of the Myelin Sheath is to protect and insulate these axons and enhance their transmission of electrical impulses. At first the Myelin does not cover the entire Axon, but the more frequently electrical pulses are passed along the Axon, the more the Myelin Sheath expands to eventually cover the entire Axon. When you are repeating activities regularly, you are building up the Myelin Sheath in specific areas of the brain as well as other areas. Therefore, the more often you perform a task or action, the easier and smoother the impulses are being sent through your body and to your brain. Usually the first few times you perform a new task, the impulses do not travel as freely through the body, but through repetition you will improve your performance because your brain will help you do it.

For the sake of an example, let us assume you are the proud new owner of a Coffee Shop. We all like coffee and have all probably made coffee at some point in our lives. You have appointed some new baristas and they need to be taught how to make coffee correctly. You explain the entire process to them and actually show them how to make the coffee. You take it a step further and let them try to make a cup of coffee. They manage to make a cup but not good enough for the customers. What now – do you get rid of them?  

If you applied the SALT principle then you would achieve the following results:

1.   By teaching them the knowledge of making a cup of coffee, showing and telling them, they might not be in a position to make the cup of coffee yet. They might have the knowledge to know how to make a cup of coffee but they still have not made a cup.

2.   Letting them try to make a cup of coffee themselves provides them with the opportunity to establish whether they are capable of translating the knowledge received into a practical sense by physically making the cup of coffee. They might manage to make a cup of coffee which is probably not suitable for the customers and does not conform to your standards of quality. Now you will have to let them practice a bit to see if their coffee making skills can improve.

3.   By letting the new barista make coffee over and over, even under your direct coaching and supervision, will provide the opportunity to make some slip-ups but gain the experience from continued application. They will be able to systematically improve their skill through continuous application. If you do eventually decide to no longer employ the barista, you will have no doubt that you provided every opportunity for them to learn and master the skill of making coffee. By letting them practice over and over, and make some slip-ups along the way, you will also allow them to have more freedom to be creative. They might surprise you and find new and novel ways of making the customers’ coffee experience more rewarding.

4.   If, through this process, you have developed a very competent and skilled barista, you are now able to use this barista to teach the new baristas the skills of making an awesome cup of coffee, thereby freeing you up to lead your team in other areas. It was Benjamin Franklin who remarked that “If you want to know if someone learnt something, see if they can explain or teach it to some-one else”.

As Jared Messer, a well-known Nashville Country artist, will say “they need to LEARN, TRY and PRACTICE” to master any skill.

A client of mine, who has a large distribution network with several distribution centres, applied this concept effectively. They have retail outlets all over Africa and therefore have to contend with export regulations on top of the normal distribution of goods. They have a “scoreboard” system where they track there production for the day in regards to the orders picked, packed and distributed.

Whenever they employ new pickers, they train them extensively and then have them placed on the distribution line. Because they are new pickers and do not have the proficiency of the experienced pickers, they are naturally slower than their experienced fellow workers. The supervisors therefore, put them on the line alongside an experienced picker for the first few hours of the shift and then replaced them with another experienced worker. The result is that they allow the new picker time to develop and gain experience but also then ensure that they still meet their targets by replacing the with an experienced picker with enough toe to spare t pick up the pace. They do this for a period of time extending the time the new picker works as they gain experience until they have reached a point of proficiency to work an entire shift without detriment to the target.  

Even in God’s Word, salt has major significance. In Leviticus chapter 2 verse 13 God instructs the Israelites through Moses, "And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt." (NKJV).

In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5 verse 13 Jesus tells His disciples “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavour, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men”. (WEB)

In 2 Chronicles chapter 13 verses 5 we are told that God sealed a covenant with King David and his son King Solomon with salt. This shows you that salt is not only used to flavour or preserve food, it is useful for ensuring commitment to your duties (offerings as described in Leviticus), preserving what is valuable to you (such as food) and also creating friendship and bonds, as in the case of David and Solomon.

Salt as a product, but more so as an acronym, is what is needed to spice up your teams training and flavour and preserve the new skills they require to face the uncertain future where their jobs may even be in jeopardy. Make sure you have enough salt to preserve your team’s future.

My cousin owned a hotel in a coastal town along the west coast of Cape Town in South Africa. One of the favourite snacks the local inhabitants really enjoy there is a type of fish jerky called “bokkoms”. It is a very salty fish product made from mullet which is similar to a trout. My cousin would hang a couple of bunches of these fish in the doorway as you enter the bar, and everyone that came into the bar would then ask who the bunches of fish belong to and my cousin would tell them they were free for everyone. What happened eventually was that the more of this fish they ate, the thirstier they became, the more beer they ended up drinking. So my cousin therefore made more revenue by selling the additional beer because the salty fish made them thirsty.

That is why I am still adamant when I say that you can lead a horse to water and MAKE it drink. Just feed it enough salt!