A teacher of fly fishing and the art of leadership

For seven years, Martha Hahn would often gather her fly-fishing gear and head to the nearest river or mountain lake to escape the pressures of being the Idaho director for the Bureau of Land Management.

The time away from her hectic job — overseeing an agency with a $30 million budget and nearly 500 employees — wasn’t solely for catching Idaho’s elusive trout.

Ken Dey
The Idaho Statesman

"I’d spend a lot of weekends fly fishing and thinking about what I learned at work," Hahn said.

It was during those outings that she started to see parallels between fly fishing and how to be a better leader.

Hahn resigned as BLM state director in 2002, after declining to accept a reassignment. She closed her 25-year career in public service and opened a leadership coaching business called The Sage Project.

She never forgot the lessons she learned from fly fishing.

Hahn is now putting those lessons to work in a new series of summer workshops titled "Leadership on the Fly" and "Interactions on the Fly." These workshops won’t be held in a stuffy hotel conference room. Instead they’ll be on Idaho’s Salmon River and will include a healthy dose of fly fishing to reinforce the lessons Hahn is trying to convey.


Martha Hahn, former state director of the Bureau of Land Management, tries her luck along the Boise River at Barber Park earlier this week. Hahn now is a consultant specializing in leadership development. Hahn is planning a new seminar called Leadership on the Fly. In the seminar, Hahn will lead participants on fly-fishing outings, contrasting the skills used for fishing with the ones in leadership.

Below: Martha Hahn Business wisdom from fishing

Making parallels between fly fishing and the business world isn’t as crazy as one would think. Here’s a look at some of Martha Hahn’s fly-fishing principles and how they relate to business:

• Survey the territory. Being successful at fishing requires understanding the territory you’re fishing, and the same is true for your own career. Look at where you’re working: Where do you need to focus? What might you be missing? Who are you as a leader?

• Matching the hatch. The right fly at the right time catches the most fish. As in fishing, you must understand your employees or colleagues to be successful. Find out who you want to influence. What are their needs? What moves them? What are their abilities? How do they receive and accept information? And how can you match them?

• Always add to your fly box. No matter how successful you are at fly-fishing, there’s always another person who has a better-equipped fly box. You should always be adding to your own leadership fly box. How can you benefit from others? What’s important to you? What’s the power of sharing?

• What about the bears? Any fly-fishing trip can be interrupted by unexpected visitors, and the same is true in your professional career. Decide who are the bears in your career and ask yourself what is the best way to handle them.

For more information on Hahn’s fly-fishing and leadership workshops, call 433-0686 or 1-888-433-0686.

Related Links

* Information about Martha Hahn’s leadership training


Initially, Hahn’s idea was greeted with some skepticism.

"When she first talked about relating it (leadership) to fly fishing, I said, ‘What are you saying?’ " said Tom Coates, a Salmon River outfitter and owner of Salmon River Scenic Run in Challis.

But it didn’t take long for Hahn to sell the idea to Coates, who has agreed to provide the fly-fishing part of Hahn’s seminar.

"When she first started talking about matching the hatch, I started to understand," Coates said.

"Matching the hatch" — figuring out which fly fish will bite on — is one of the fly-fishing concepts Hahn equates to leadership.

"Matching the hatch is just understanding what the people you’re leading need," Hahn said. "It’s no different than trying to determine what the fish are eating."

Hahn’s use of fly fishing to teach leadership is no surprise to those who know her.

"Martha’s favorite venue is the outdoors," said Elena Daly, former associate director for the BLM in Idaho.

"She has a creative and interesting way to get to problem-solving, and she ties those things together very well," said Daly, now the BLM’s director of the National Landscaping Conservation Service in Washington, D.C. "It has been interesting to see her birth this idea."

The outdoor venue is what will make her workshops unique, Hahn said.

When people are outdoors and out of the office, they are less formal and challenged to do things they wouldn’t normally have to do, she said. It also allows leaders to interact and learn from each other.

A key part of Hahn’s program is improving communication. Daly said Hahn excels at that.

"She is a great believer in open conversation at all levels of the organization," Daly said. "She wasn’t afraid to go to a field office and talk to a receptionist or talk to a recreation technician. She used to tell me that some of those conversations gave her the best ideas."

"What I recognized as a leader is that individuals are very responsible and creative, and I don’t need all the answers," Hahn said.

"They had the answers. All I had to do was ask the right questions."

Hahn is hoping that her workshops catch on, even though she admits that it may be a tough sell to convince some leaders that they can have fun and learn at the same time.

"I’d like to break that myth down," Hahn said. "Why should you have to suffer when you go through training?"

Coates, a supervisor in a mining company before becoming an outfitter, agrees.

"If it’s hands-on and you relate it to something in your life, I’m sure you’ll remember it," Coates said.

"I’m sure we’ve all sat in classrooms, and 20 minutes later woke up and wondered where you’re at."

Hahn’s seminars will start in July and continue through summer.

She also plans a series of books exploring the concepts in her workshops.

Daly and Coates said business leaders will embrace Hahn’s non-traditional way of training leaders.

"I’m not a fly fisherman. I’m a kid from South Jersey," Daly said. "But when she talks about it and paints a picture with her words and enthusiasm, it’s absolutely captivating and I feel like jumping right into it."

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