The Leader as Gardener

"Well-oiled machine."

For most of the time I’ve been in business, that was the metaphor for organizations. Leaders designed machines. Other leaders operated machines. And the machines themselves? Well, they were made up of interchangeable parts. If a part broke or if a part wore out, all you had to do was replace it with another part.

That metaphor comes from the early Industrial Age. It made sense then, but it makes little sense now.

Leaders aren’t super-powerful beings that design and operate organizations. Organizations aren’t machines. They’re made up of unique human beings, not interchangeable parts.

Today, it makes more sense to think of a leader as gardener, not a machine designer or a machine operator. Think about dealing with unique living things, not inanimate and interchangeable parts. Give up control. Instead, create an environment where your garden will flourish. Here are four things you should do.

Choose the Right Plants

As a gardener, your first challenge is to pick the right plants. You pick the plants that will yield the crop you want. If you want delicious corn on the cob, it makes sense to plant corn. As a leader, you should pick a team that has all the skills you need to do the job.

As a gardener, you should choose plants that will flourish in your environment. Plants that thrive in Sequim, Washington, are not likely to thrive in Phoenix, Arizona. As a leader, your team culture is the important environment. Find people who will thrive in it.

As a gardener, you should pick plants that go together. Not all combinations of plants work well. A plant that thrives in your friend’s garden down the street might be choked off in yours. As a leader, you should choose team members who can work well together.

Living things, whether plants or people, thrive when we tend to them. That’s true whether it’s your backyard vegetable garden or your leadership garden. In both cases, there are three things to tend.

Tend the Plants

As a gardener, you must pay attention to each plant. Watch for signs of distress. Then act to make the plant healthy again. As a leader you should spend time with each team member. Help them grow and develop. Give them the resources and support they need.

Tend the Garden

As a gardener, you must pay attention to how the whole garden grows. As a leader, you should watch how the team works together. It’s your job to spot behavior and discord that threaten team performance and act to make things right.

Take Heroic Measures When Necessary

If you’re a gardener, you know that you can do everything right and bad things can still happen. Deer may feast on your tomatoes. A sudden cold snap can threaten your harvest. Children may pull up plants for fun. Those things call for heroic measures.

Your leadership garden is the same. The Powers That Be may come up with an idea that threatens your productivity or morale. A team member may suffer a personal tragedy. A key performer may follow “one true love” to another state. When things like that happen, it’s your cue to do what you can.

Bottom Line

Organizations aren’t machines. People aren’t parts. You will do your best work as a leader when you think of yourself as a gardener. Create an environment where living things flourish and produce great results.

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