Leaders as Gardeners: Roots, Shoots and Fruits

In a previous post I suggested leaders as gardeners pay as much attention to the environment as they do to what is growing in that environment. But that is not to say leaders as gardeners don’t pay any attention to what is growing. They definitely do. They are not passive observers, letting anything grow, anywhere anyhow. Far from it. They are active in weeding, feeding and pruning. I want to explore this tension under the heading of roots, shoots and fruits.

The subject of roots has come up in a number of conversations recently. There is more to explore on this subject than I can cover here so for now I am going to restrict myself to the concept of roots in the context of the leader as gardener metaphor.

So what can be said about roots?

• They are in the most part invisible

• They stabilise and secure

• They are “feeding tubes”

Translating this into the language of leadership, leaders do well to pay attention to what is unseen and not simply rely on what they can see because the people and cultures they lead are shaped by invisible roots which can hold them forward as well as hold them back. Helping people to grow invariably involves “root-work”. The ancient art of bonsai powerfully demonstrates the effect that shaping roots has on shaping shoots and fruits. In the positive sense these roots are our values, hopes and dreams, what motivates us. In the negative sense these roots are our fears and insecurities, our hurts, our hidden expectations. So often our efforts to shape people and culture focus on the superficial as we deal with what we can see. In the process we become proficient at plastic surgery, making things look right, as opposed to heart surgery which focuses on shaping the unseen rhythms that set the direction and tempo of our individual and corporate lives.

Leading “below ground” requires a huge amount of emotional intelligence.

Ironically I think to see what is below ground leaders need to be good listeners.

Shoots are signs of life, the first-fruits of growth, an indication that something is working, but they present leaders as gardeners with one of their biggest challenges – how and when to respond to growth with staking and pruning. Staking being a metaphor for coaching, pruning being a metaphor for feedback in the form of what I think of as “stop” as well as “start and continue”. Here the leader as gardener becomes leader as coach, a rare beast indeed and sadly and badly missed in business. I think one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to fail to coach and fail to provide early feedback. I say early feedback because the longer you leave it the more radical and painful it is to give and receive feedback. I suspect the reluctance to coach and provide feedback is fuelled by two things: A lack of competency and courage in giving feedback and a concern that coaching equals controlling.

In my mind one of the most important leadership competencies is coaching and one of the most valuable lessons from the garden has to be the impact of allowing things to grow “un-coached”. Mixing my metaphors horribly, one of the most important attributes of a healthy “garden culture” is the presence of coaching and feedback. We need to move passed our fear of feedback and understand coaching is about releasing not controlling.

Fruit is arguably the ultimate expression of growth in the garden. It speaks of the health of what’s planted and the vitality of the environment. It also validates identity – apple trees produce apples …

It strikes me that the fruit an individual and community produces ultimately speaks more powerfully to their true identity and makes them more attractive to others than the output of any marketing machine.

So fruit matters, but the danger for leaders (as this post suggests) is that they focus exclusively on fruits and ignore roots and shoots. Leaders as gardeners understand that fruit is a natural product of healthy growth and that their focus is to maintain the right growth conditions (culture) and encourage the right growth patterns (roots and shoots). Covey would say – look after the goose that lays the golden eggs not just the golden eggs, as shiny and valuable as they are. No golden goose, no golden eggs.

All of that said I must close by saying that gardeners are usually the first to enjoy the fruit of their labour and quick to share it.

Leaders as gardeners celebrate the fruitfulness of the people and communities they lead.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant