Help Your People Grow: 7 Tips to Lead Like a Gardener
“Wow! Where did these tulips come from?”
That was my surprised question last Spring when these beautiful pink tulips appeared alongside a patch of brilliantly yellow daffodils in my yard.
They came from the ground, but I had not planted those bulbs. At the height of the pandemic, I began gardening with house plants, then moved to outdoor gardening. This was my pandemic therapy. I planted two beautiful rose bushes and a couple of butterfly bushes. I started caring for a few plants a church member had planted several years earlier by pulling weeds, tilling, and mulching the soil.
Lo and behold, these “new flowers” appeared the following Spring. Could it be they were lying dormant in the ground and came to life as the soil or environment they were planted in was tended to?
I began to think of the seeds God plants within us, ready to spring forth with just the right combination of light and love. God is the ultimate gardener (John 15:1 NLT) but calls us as leaders to come alongside and lead as gardeners. To lead like a gardener, or what I call a gardener-leader, is to cultivate an environment where people flourish, grow, and produce.
Wherever you lead, this garden metaphor can help you develop an organic approach to leadership to ensure all your people thrive.
Here are a few leadership lessons I gleaned from gardening that I trust will bless you:
Tip 1: Get A Vision.
My vision for my garden entailed designing multiple smaller gardens with just the right plants so they could thrive. My backyard was the perfect place to plant my rose bushes. In the front of my house, we have big mature shade trees. Here I planted hostas and azaleas. As a leader, getting a vision entails seeing the people you lead as real human beings with skills, abilities, gifts, and experiences. Knowing your team members’ makeup, strengths, and weaknesses will help you place them where they can thrive and play to their strengths. A gardener-leader must envision the design of the organization or team they lead and sees the people as the heart of the design.
Tip 2: Aim for Progress, Not Perfection.
I started small the first year with the goal of simply getting started, instead of trying to get the perfect garden. I was learning, and each year I made progress adding plants and flowers, learning more about mulching, and getting consistent with weeding. When it comes to leading our team members, we are often driven by this unstated goal of perfection—creating the perfect program, plan, or proposal. Too often, that quest for perfection will cause you and your team members to get stuck overthinking, aiming for ideal rather than real solutions. The gardener-leader lets go of perfect and works toward making progress.
Tip 3: Understand Timing.
This year we had a stretch of unseasonably warm weather in April. I got excited on a warm Saturday in mid-April and planted two new azalea bushes in the back, a hydrangea bush, and two new peony plants. I was so elated I posted my feat on social media. By that Monday, the weather had turned drastically cold and snowed! I lost a peony plant and the hydrangea. I had forgotten a critical lesson a dear gardening friend has mentioned, which is to wait until after Mother’s Day to plant. By then, the Chicago weather stabilizes to consistently warm temperatures. Timing is everything. So, it is with working with your team members.
The gardener-leader remains sensitive to the timing to give feedback for growth and the timing for holding team meetings and one on one coaching sessions. The gardener-leader cannot get so busy doing business that she misses the business of tending to her people.
Tip 4: Nourish the Soil.
The soil in my backyard tended to have a great deal of clay. I spent the first year adding topsoil, fertilizing, and plenty of mulch. Suitable soil is foundational to healthy plants. So, it is with organizations that the habits, rituals, and routines developed are akin to the garden’s soil. The gardener-leader understands this and cultivates healthy behaviors, practices, and rituals for members of the organization to make habitual. A good habit is to run interactive and inclusive meetings in which staff and team members have input. In most client organizations, executive leaders host quarterly town halls to enable members to ask questions and share concerns. Good habits start with developing and enforcing good norms for working together.
Tip 5: Provide Water.
Each year I plant new plants, and I intentionally water them regularly. I was taught that in the first year, the plants need an abundance of watering to support them in taking root. After that, the regular rain cycles will suffice for nourishing the more mature plants. Likewise, new team members need more attention than more mature team members. Last year, however, was that scorching hot summer. The more often I got outside and regularly watered my mature plants, the less they withered. The gardener-leader can see tapping into and addressing the interests of her employees and team members as watering their thirst for meaningful engagement. As the authors of the Culture Puzzle write: “Too many people spend their days in meetings feeling parched.” (page 69). When this happens, our team members experience leaders as talking at them instead of with them.
Tip 6: Be the Light.
My rose bushes thrive on the six-plus hours of sunlight in the backyard facing east. My hosta plants thrive on the evening light as they face west and are planted near shade trees. Plants need light—some more than others. As many of us remember from our science courses, photosynthesis is the process by which plants use sunlight to synthesize food. People need light also. When leaders see their people as real human beings and not just cogs in the organizational wheel, they recognize what people bring. That light shines bright when their ideas are encouraged, and they feel safe showing up authentically. The gardener-leader must be aware of the light she shines on her team by reinforcing and building up team members. Leaders can be lights that stimulate the light of their teams.
Tip 7: Let Go of Control.
The main thing I learned in gardening is that I do not control the growth process. I had no control over the weather conditions or the rate of growth of my plants and flowers. Despite my best efforts, I could not even contain the weeds—no matter how many times I pulled them, other weeds returned. I had to learn to trust the gardening process as a God-given process of nature in which I played a part. I facilitated the growth of my garden, but I could not force it. Likewise, in leadership, I learned I facilitate the development processes of organizations, teams, and individual leaders. Still, I cannot force their growth or development. The gardener-leader can coordinate processes but does not control the outcomes; too many variables are out of her control. The gardener-leader must not only trust the process but must trust God in the process.
Recommended reading: in The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing The Forces that Drive Your Organization’s Success, the authors liken organizational culture to a garden. This book is a great resource for every leader-GM gardener. You can find it on Amazon here
Continue to follow my leadership series at https://www.drjeanneporterking.com/blog/