Leaders as Gardeners: Seasons

It has often struck me that despite the fact seasons powerfully shape the world in which we live we pay so little attention to the concept of seasonality when it comes to leading and shaping the culture of our business communities. If the businesses and communities we lead are subject to season shifts then surely it makes sense for us to pay attention to them in the same way a farmer or gardener would to the seasons of nature. After all, which gardener in their right mind would work against the seasons? Yet I suspect many leaders including me have done exactly that.

It is probably worth saying that the concept of seasonality as it applies to our communities is sophisticated by the fact that not only are our communities subject to season shifts but also the individuals and families that make up those communities. In that sense our communities are a kaleidoscope of the turning of the seasons of the individuals and families that comprise them.

As leaders it’s really important to remember this if we are going to work with and not against those seasons as we lead the community and individuals and families within that community. In nature seasonality drives variations in temperature, sunlight and rainfall which characterise spring, summer, autumn and winter. It’s worth thinking about the characteristics of seasonality as they apply to the individual, the family and the community.

Seasonality as it applies to individuals is closely related to age and is characterised by variations in time, energy and money! For example when I was a student I had loads of time and energy but not a lot of money. As a forty-something with three adult children I have more money but probably less time and energy. When we were the parents of three young children Sarah and I didn’t have much time, money or energy! If you are in this last category don’t despair, enjoy the journey, the good news is they grow up, the sobering news is they grow up very quickly!

The seasonality of families is primarily shaped by major life events like births, deaths and marriages as well as the ages of children, grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents. At each stage families have to balance the finite amount of capacity they have towards themselves and those around them. A balance that shifts with the circle of life. When you think about it, family, in the way in which it responds to the seasons of life as they unfold, is incredibly flexible and resilient. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that the more like family our communities are the better they are at handling change.

When it comes to the seasonality of communities I think the variations are mostly to do with pace and focus. Communities as they grow and develop will experience periods of rapid change akin to white water rafting where the line between steering and hanging on for a dear life is very thin. Equally they will experience periods of consolidation where the primary concern is establishing and maintaining.

In parallel to pace there is also the question of focus. In some seasons a community will be more inward looking, focussing on itself. These seasons are often periods of reflection: Who are we? Why are we here? What do we want to look like in 5years? How should we organise ourselves to get there? In other seasons a community will focus externally perhaps responding to what it sees as an opportunity or indeed a threat.

I like to think of the interplay of these seasonal changes in pace and focus as the community breathing. Over time the community grows as it breathes in and out. If it focuses exclusively on breathing in or breathing out – there are consequences –try it yourself and see what happens! One way to understand the season a community is in is to understand whether it is primarily breathing in or breathing out, which is about focus, and also how fast it is breathing, which is about pace. In other words, is the community strolling, kicking leaves and enjoying the journey or hiking, focused on the destination, in pursuit of a goal? Too much of one or the other is unhealthy.

I’d like to closeout this post by suggesting that different seasons require different leadership gift mixes. If this is true then it is vitally important that individual leaders and leadership teams flex in response to season shifts. Failure to do this for whatever reason can result in leaders leading against rather than with the seasons.

As I write this I am struck by the season shift we are currently experiencing in business leadership from high profile individuals to high performing teams; from leaders who serve to servants who lead. These changes are as fundamental to our future as they are challenging to our present and they call for an unprecedented level of insight into the times in which we live, and humility and courage amongst leaders who will need to be the change they lead.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant