Five Leadership Lessons from the Garden

by  Eileen McDargh  |  Leadership Development
Five Leadership Lessons from the Garden

The flowers that are in full bloom are wonderful. The weeds that have taken over one corner are terrible. To get my garden in world class condition and ready for the competitive eye of my neighbor is exactly what every leader must do: seed, feed, and weed.

  1. Consider the “season.” In today’s 24-hour global economy, it would appear that there is no season, nothing that distinguishes night from day. Grow, grow. Sell, sell. But the smart leader watches the sky, reads the clouds, and can tell when there are shifts to indicate a new season. Bring products to market at the wrong time or introduce an idea without understanding timing and the “garden” can quickly resemble a piece of scorched earth.
  1. Give credence to the unexpected and control what you can control. The El Niño weather has not only raised havoc with my roses but spawned dangerous storms and opposing droughts throughout the world. Leaders face “El Niños”: market downturns, a coup in Africa, airline strikes, terrorist attacks. You name it. A great leader takes all precautions and then remains flexible and ready for the unexpected. Scenario planning, a strategy first employed by Royal Dutch Shell, brings experts from a wide range of fields together to discuss actions if different scenarios take place. Scenario planning allows you to think out—in advance—various options. In like fashion, my corner of the garage has all the tools, sprays, and plant potions necessary for probable surprises.
  1. Plant seeds and give space to the sowers. A smart leader knows that it is only through dialogue that ideas can sprout and take root. Instead of jealously guarding “my ideas, my client, my territory,” a leader with an eye toward growing a “garden” takes no ownership but rather seeks to find which seeds have merit. Like the biblical passage, some seeds will wither on rocks or find little moisture in shallow soil. But others will be carried to places where they flourish. When newcomers bring ideas from other industries and businesses, are they welcomed or are they rooted out because “that’s not how we do things here”?
  1. Feed different plants differently. Not every plant needs the same thing, yet all plants must eat. A “garden-wise” leader understands “nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” Just as each voice has its own unique sonogram, each employee, associate, and stakeholder needs a unique blend of “food.” For some, the “food” is numbers: “Give me numbers and I thrive.” For many, it’s the opportunity to learn and advance in knowledge. For others, it’s the engaging nature of the work itself that offers fulfillment.
  1. Weeding is backbreaking work. A great leader hates this part of the task. It means fact-finding. Accountability. Time. Not everything that is “green” belongs in my garden. Not every associate belongs with you. In fact, firing customers at times can also be the healthiest long-term fertilizer for a vibrant business.

Leaders must take time to stop and “smell the roses.” I can get so overwhelmed with the “work” of my garden that I forget why I planted it. Why have you planted your “garden”?  Are there people who delight in the work of your hands?  When you step back and gaze at your enterprise, are you pleased with what you see?


Spring is now here. How does your “garden” grow?
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Eileen McDargh

About The Author

Articles By eileen-mcdargh
Eileen McDargh is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, master facilitator, and award-winning author with expertise in resiliency and leadership. Her articles have appeared in countless publications and two of her six books have been awarded national recognition, including the Ben Franklin Gold Award.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  04 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Eileen:

Appreciate the emphasis on growing things in this very seasonal post, as we all start to venture outdoors and enjoy the spring, with or without planting flowers.

I really enjoyed this analogy … connecting how we lead and manage to how we grow beautiful flowers (or in my case, try to to kill them too quickly) is both powerful imagery and very well stated.

I could add that, in my experience, some folks seem to have a “green thumb” where knowing how and when to nurture and influence others comes more easily to them, at least on the surface. I would guess it is like many other things in life … when you pay close attention to what works, it gets easier.

When I read your point about feeding different plants differently, I was reminded of my last venture into gardening … growing wildflowers in a plot by our front door. When you plant wildflowers, you get a dizzying array of colors, shapes, sizes, and needs. While the variety can be breathtaking, keeping all the plants healthy can be a challenge … until you remember that they thrive in a meadow without any human help whatsoever.

I think some workplaces can be like the meadow, which means to me that the best leadership may be that done with a very light touch, just to help things along a little:).

Anyway, you have me dreaming of warm summer breezes and colorful flowers lapping up the sunshine:) …


Eileen McDargh  |  04 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Love your comments, John. And the analogy about wild flowers ! It’s rather like the philosophy of Zappos and their hands -off, free form structure. I do believe that if a picture is worth 1000 words, a metaphor is worth 1000 pictures. Much of my work with clients is to craft metaphors around issues.
Happy springtime!

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