Leaders as Gardeners: Making Space and Giving Time

In this post on leaders as gardeners, I want to focus on the idea that planting begins with relative immaturity.

In gardening, maturity is the end product not the starting point. By this I mean gardeners rarely plant a fully grown plant, they sow immaturity in the form of seeds and seedlings. In this case I’m not using immaturity as a pejorative term but simply as a description that indicates what is being planted is not fully grown. I’m also not suggesting gardeners plant recklessly, they are careful, planting at the right time and in the right place but they don’t wait for the seed to germinate before sowing or the seedling to reach full maturity before planting. If you think about it this would make no sense as the seed or seedling wouldn’t grow unless they are planted.

Being planted is a key to releasing maturity.

Applying this metaphor to leadership, my point is leaders can make the mistake of waiting for those they are coaching and mentoring to reach an unrealistic level of competency and maturity before they release them to lead. A level of competency and maturity they themselves had not attained to when they were released. Setting the bar unrealistically high in this way slows down leadership development, in some cases arresting it completely. As a result leadership succession becomes a retirement strategy not a growth strategy.

Leaders as gardeners understand leadership succession is about growth, the growth of the individual leader and the growth of the community they lead (the two are inextricably linked). They are not afraid to release into leadership those they believe are ready and healthy albeit immature, giving them time to grow in the role as opposed to grow into the role, and to shape them on the job not for it. I want to finish up by talking briefly about two things gardeners do that I believe are profoundly important for leaders as gardeners.

They make space and they give time.

In shaping a garden, gardeners will often have to make space for younger plants to come through by repositioning or reducing the size of more mature, larger plants or repositioning younger plants to reduce the degree to which they have to compete with more established plants for light and nutrients. This could sound ageist but the point I’m making is multi-generational leadership and leadership succession requires established leaders to adjust, to make room for those emerging alongside them and to positively encourage them to occupy space they themselves have previously occupied - even if this means they have to get out of the way! And in the process to see themselves as complementing not competing. The challenge this presents and the anxiety any sense of “passing the baton” creates for existing leaders should not be underestimated. Above all else it requires maturity and security in the hearts of established leaders so they are not threatened by emerging leaders but see it as their role to accelerate the growth of those who come after them, understanding that success looks like succession.

Having planted “healthy immaturity” gardeners then do something very powerful – they wait, they give what they have planted not only space, they give it time. It strikes me gardeners are inherently patient people. Having planted they wait patiently because they know growth, maturity and fruitfulness are only a matter of time. More than that they don’t interfere with what they’ve planted. They don’t keep digging it up to check on its progress. Leaders as gardeners know how to recognise and release, to delegate and coach. In the process they don’t abdicate but neither do they meddle. They give space and time for those they have released to learn through growing and grow through learning. Unfortunately for many leaders delegation equals remote control; effective delegation is key to leadership development.

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.

Bill Gates

The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

Ralph Nader

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant